The Future of Working From Home is Grim

Many big corporations haven’t yet found a way to efficiently micromanage and exploit employees working from home. That’s about to change.

Over half of the U.S. workforce began working from home over the last few months. Many of those workers have returned to work in states that have reopened, but some workers will remain at home for the foreseeable future, possibly permanently. Both employees and employers may be realizing for the first time that their job can be easily done remotely.

Working from home isn’t for everyone. The social aspect of the workplace can’t be replaced by Zoom meetings or Slack messages. Some workers may be realizing how much more productive they are at the office. Occupying the same physical space as co-workers and bosses can boost morale, but they also hold us accountable. For those that find themselves straying off-task more often at home, they may find going to work best for their happiness and productivity.

Other workers thrive at home. Away from the distractions of chatty colleagues, they’re finally able to put their head down and focus on work. They probably weren’t too attached to the social aspect of work to begin with, so virtual meetings are more than enough to satisfy their craving for socialization with co-workers. The comfort of staying home and enjoying a 30-second commute (there’s usually not much traffic from the bedroom to the living room) far outweigh the benefits of in-person interactions which can be replicated, although not perfectly, virtually.

Utopia or dystopia?

If you are more productive at the office and love being around your co-workers, the last few months have probably been miserable. You may not understand how many of your co-workers seem so happy on the weekly Zoom check-in. Being home all day has probably taken a toll on your mental health, and you can’t wait until it’s safe to go back to work.

For those that love working at home, the last few months may have offered a glimpse into the utopian future they dreamed of. Many with longer commutes are now able to sleep in, spend more time with loved ones, and are experiencing less stress and unhappiness. It may be hard to go back to work; some will likely be able to continue working from home for the foreseeable future, but others have already returned to work and many more will follow in the coming weeks and months.

Employees may be returning to work, but both workers and employers now realize that work is no longer confined to the workplace. In the coming years, expect to see an increasing number of employees start working from home as companies realize that some employees are happier and more productive outside of the office. Employers will save a substantial amount of money on rent and other workplace expenses, and employees will save money on childcare, gas, and vehicle maintenance.

The future of working from home

The last few months probably isn’t an accurate representation of what working from home will look like in the future. Companies weren’t ready for their employees to work from home this go-around. Next time, they will be.

The utopian future of working from home that many of us hope for probably won’t be a reality for employees of larger companies. In a capitalist market, worker productivity is the only thing that matters. The more productive workers are, the more money they can make for themselves, and, more importantly, the more money they make their employer.

It’s easy to control employees when they are coming into the workplace every day. You can control how productive employees are, how many hours they spend at work, and what they work on. Almost every aspect of a job can be controlled by an employer when the employee is at work. Things become more difficult when employees work from home. Virtual communication isn’t constant, and workers are often able to decide for themselves how to spend their time working. Perhaps surprisingly to employers, these sometimes sporadic hours actually have led to employees spending more time overall working; since the stay-at-home orders began, working time in the U.S. has increased to 11 hours per day, up from eight hours per day. 

Still, many employers don’t like the idea of employees being able to decide for themselves when and how to get work done. This lack of trust is probably seen most from employers that already aren’t paying their employees enough and generally have miserable workers. Happy employees that are satisfied with their job have some level of trust with their employer, and probably don’t need to be micromanaged to get their job done.

Many employees that work from home are already being spied on. Monitoring software that records their computer activity and time spent working has already been deployed by thousands of companies. Some employers go so far as to require webcams to always be on and schedule frequent and unnecessary check-ins. Bosses are able to review screenshots of computer activity at any point in time to ensure their underlings are always on-task and productive. 

Nothing workers do at home in the range of their work computer is private. Every email, keystroke, and webpage is being logged. This level of digital surveillance is unnecessary and undermines any remaining trust between employee and employer.

As strange as it sounds, many workers will probably be best served fighting for their right to come into work every day. Working from home would further blur the lines between work and personal life, and many employers would see this as an opportunity to squeeze even more out of their employees. Workers would risk being spied on at home and having their every moment during the work day come under scrutiny. Home may not feel like home anymore, but a prison where your employer is the jailor. It’s already common for employees to be asked to work off-the-clock, so imagine how common it will become once employees spend every day and night in the “office.” 

Working from home won’t be dystopian for everyone, but if you already have a fraught relationship with your employer, working from home may make things worse instead of better. If your company wants to spy on your every move while working from home, it’s probably time to find a new job if possible. Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to stand up to their employer and risk their job, and many may not be able to easily find another comparable job. The future of work-from-home looks bleak for many Americans.

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