Wednesday, May 12, 2021
May 12, 2021

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Westneat: Work at home, live at work

Remote working has benefits for many but also some drawbacks


With the pandemic maybe now ebbing, the talk of the town for those of us who were lucky enough not to be on the front lines is about going back to work.

Or not.

“Most remote employees don’t want to return to the workplace,” trumpeted a recent poll. It found that a scant 5 percent of workers, forced home by the coronavirus a year ago, now wish to go back to the office full time even if the virus is vanquished.

I have a friend who’s in this 5 percent. As soon as he got his vaccination, he whisked back to his office in a mostly abandoned downtown Seattle tower. Why, I asked him?

“The pandemic started out as working from home,” he said. “But it turned into living at work.”

This is exactly how I feel. At first when the pandemic hit, I was ecstatic I had a job at all anymore. Then for months I just felt fortunate I could do it, for the most part, without masking up in crowded enclosed spaces, like the unsung grocery checkers and bus drivers.

But over time, something happened – the job and the home seemed to fuse into one. I don’t work harder now. But for some reason I work longer.

People say they love working from home because they can wear soft pants and skip the commute. But there’s a cost, it turns out, to inviting your company into your spare bedroom that you converted into a home office.

Microsoft, to its credit, recognized early on that “we are all right now participants in a giant, natural, uncontrolled remote work experiment.” So they assigned researchers to track everything from the pitfalls of multitasking during Zoom meetings to worker morale to the unique telework experiences of people with disabilities. The company has put out nearly 30 research papers on the remote-work phenomenon.

The findings are wide-ranging, with pros and cons, but one main take-away jumped out at me: The workweek got longer, by about three to four hours per week.

A new “night shift” emerged, as instant-messaging work communication soared between 6 p.m. and midnight. Remote work also meant more meetings. Researchers monitored the brainwaves of some employees during these video meetings and found that “dramatic changes in brainwave patterns, consistent with being over-worked or stressed, began to set in after about two hours.”

A study of software developers found that productivity was up – but listen to some of the reasons why.

“Sometimes an idea clicks in the middle of the night, and with work-from-home, implementing that idea is literally 2 seconds away,” one Microsoft engineer said.

“I feel like I can solve problems more easily since I don’t feel constrained by a clock. I can start a job and cook dinner, then come back to check the job results while I leave something in the oven or when I’m done cooking,” said a developer.

Said a third: “I sometimes feel I just sit the whole day, and only do very few steps to the toilet and coffee machine.”

There are positive findings, too, such as … well I don’t know, I stepped away to the toilet and missed it. But the company just published a 65-page summary report called “The New Future of Work: Research from Microsoft into the Pandemic’s Impact on Work Practices,” which I recommend for its frankness and depth.

Is this really the new future of work though? I find it peculiar that after a year of pandemic our society has settled on two unquestioning conclusions: Remote schooling is a disaster, while remote working is fantastic. They’re not really that different, are they, with human relationships and connection being crucial to both?

I know, I’m going to lose this argument. Remote work is just too convenient, the technology too powerful, the soft pants too comfy. There are remote work evangelists springing up now, consultants who hail the power of “asynchronous” labor and offer future-work bromides such as “if productivity was a place, it wouldn’t be an office.”

Here’s one that caught my eye, from a remote work “provisioning platform” called Firstbase: “Offices are instantaneous gratification distraction factories where synchronous work makes it impossible to get stuff done.”

I can’t think of much my soul needs more right now than to synchronously go to a distraction factory and be surrounded by instantaneous gratification, aka people, who are making it impossible to get stuff done. In the Before Times, in my business we called that a “newsroom.”