Working from home – the next revolution, now happening

by Fabius Maximus 

Summary: Industrial revolutions are not one big event. They are many incremental changes with giant effects. Wars and pandemics often accelerate them, changing society unexpectedly with fantastic speed. The shift to working at home is one such change, forced by COVID-19 – changing everything.

There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.
— Paraphrase from Marx’s letter to Engels, 9 April 1863.

Male fantasy image of a woman working at home.

Happy woman working From Home - AdobeStock-224435267
By Jacob Lund, AdobeStock-224435267.

A crisis can spark a jump in a society’s evolution. America after WWII was drastically different than before it. Technology leaped forward, the shift of population and vitality to the West coast accomplished in a few years what might have taken a decade otherwise. The power and reach of the Federal government expanded to a revolutionary degree. Social patterns also changed, as millions of people left their homes to travel across the nation or the world – and millions of women went from homemakers to industrial workers. The effects of these changes took decades to fully play out, but were irreversibly set in motion by WWII.

COVID-19 might have some similar, albeit smaller, effects. The economic and political changes can only be guessed at now. But one is big, with effects gigantic if as yet unseen: the shift of work back to homes. The shift to telecommuting was an obvious and early prediction after the popularization of the Intenet. It began to accelerate after 2004 – from small numbers (graph from a Fed study). COVID-19 has taken this trend and shifted it to warp speed.

Graph of Employees Working From Home

Workers like it

“I think this is a watershed moment in terms of wider acceptance and implementation of work-from-home. Employees that have tasted the benefits of more freedom and autonomy are going be hard-pressed to let it go.”
— Philippe Weiss, president of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, a Chicago-based workplace training firm. From Chicago Tribune.

Gallup Research found that in 2016 43% of workers sometimes worked “remotely” (not necessarily from home). Their 2014 survey found that 76% of workers said that the ability to work remotely was a positive development. Their 2020 report found that a large fraction of workers preferred remote working – the more the worked remotely, the better they liked it. Less time and expense commuting. Less time preparing for work. Less need for a work wardrobe. Often (not always) a better work environment – and sometimes, using better technology.

The benefits to businesses will be immense

Improved productivity, happier workers, fewer absences are benefits businesses immediately report when shifting employees to at home work. But this change is a gift that keeps giving. Employees usually pay for their own IT equipment, repairs, and communications. The increasing burden of monitoring workers’ interactions – the cost and time spent in annual training, the managers’ time spent, the big HR staff, the liability insurance, the bills – are reduced, melting like last year’s snow.

Eventually, businesses will need less square footage. That means less expense for rent, taxes, maintenance, and insurance. The prospect of bigger profits at each step on the road will be an irresistible inducement for businesses.

There will be casualties

Those benefits to workers and businesses mean fewer jobs. That picture of a happy woman working at home is a fantasy. She’ll be in jeans and a t-shirt. Her budget for cosmetics, nice clothes, and hair products will be slashed. The people who sold her lunch, the janitors, the painters – many of these will be unemployed. That is an inevitable side effect of increasing national productivity. In the past, new jobs were eventually created to replace those lost. But that is not a law of nature. As discussed in other posts, this industrial revolution might be like the Horse Revolution. Their jobs were lost, without new ones being created for the unemployed horses.

Getting there will not be easy

Niagara Falls in 1904. Every factory with its own hydropower! It wasn’t ideal.

Niagara Falls in 1904Industrial revolutions introduce new technology and methods that can drastically boost productivity. But it does not happen immediately. It takes time to develop new ways to make the most of these innovations. At first, they are seen as news ways to continue the old ways: artificial writing (the printing press), the horseless carriage and iron horse, the wireless telegraph (radio), glass teletype (early computer terminals). Only when people break free from old models can the full potential of innovations flourish.

The psychology of working from home requires changes by both managers and employees. Managers fear losing control and an inability to build team spirit. Employees lose the comaradary of work and must develop self-discipline. New e-tools monitor productivity and allow remote interactions. None of this comes quickly or easily. The Chicago Tribune describes how companies are adapting, such as this.

“That’s been a sea change for managers,” {Weiss} said. “Manager myths are falling by the wayside because their people have had to come front and center.” Weiss said Seyfarth at Work has been getting a lot more training requests recently on how to supervise remote employees, which requires a different approach than when they are sitting in a nearby cubicle or when casual conversations can be had en route to the elevators. Managers must set clearer expectations, offer more frequent praise and have more purposeful check-ins on progress when their workers are remote, he said.”

This article in The Atlantic also describes these challenges.

Bigger changes lie ahead

As businesses concentrate into giant mega-corps located in a few regions, the rest of America empties out while living expenses skyrocket for workers. They live in areas like NY City and the San Francisco Bay Area where everyting is more expensive. And housing prices are high and climbing. A shift to work at home can break this emprisonment, allowing people to work in nicer and cheaper areas. It might be the shift to suburbs after WWII but on a different scale.

Our social lives also will change. As America’s intermediate institutions – such as churches, fraternal organizations, and social clubs – have faded, work remains the major focus of many people’s lives. Where they have personal contact and meet people of other kinds and classes. That goes away when working from home. Perhaps the next generation will have a large fraction of people who work and play remotely from other people, as science fiction author Isaac Asimov described in his 1956 novel The Naked Sun.

These and other wonders await us in the 21st century as a new industrial revolution unfolds. See my posts about it.