Catastrophes have a way of fast-forwarding history. After millions of women joined the labor force during World War II to help the United States reach staggering levels of industrial production, attitudes about women and work would never be the same. Although millions of women were laid off at the end of the war, Ruth Milkman explains (in her book On Gender, Labor, and Inequality) that they “resisted the notion that they were working only ‘for the duration.’ Most insisted that they would remain in the paid labor force after the war.”
At the beginning of the war, the vast majority of women reported that they had no intention of remaining in the labor force after it was over. By the end, thousands of working women were surveyed by the U.S. Women’s Bureau, and three-quarters of them said the opposite.
As COVID-19 continues to devastate our economy, pushing millions of Americans out of work, destroying businesses, and effectively shutting down the country, some are suggesting that we should look to World War II for lessons on how to mobilize our entire society to flatten the curve and get the pandemic under control. But a drastic increase in the production of personal protective equipment, ventilators, and test kits should only be one aspect of this process. Millions of American workers also need a way to continue doing their jobs, and this requires us to rethink some of our basic assumptions about the nature of work.
While there are plenty of jobs that have to be done in person, many businesses that could easily switch to remote work still force employees to come into the office every day. There are several reasons why this makes little sense – for one thing, countless digital productivity tools (such as Slack, Zoom, and G Suite) are available to make remote work more streamlined and productive than ever. For another, businesses are drastically increasing their overhead to maintain large physical offices. But perhaps the most pressing reason why companies should embrace remote work is its capacity to make employees happier and more productive.
This is something many writers have long understood: by granting people the autonomy to work when, how, and where they want, companies give them the flexibility to live their lives as they see fit. They can work around appointments and other obligations, while simultaneously learning how to remain productive no matter where they are. They’ll also be able to choose the sort of environments they want to work in, from coffee shops to home offices, which can have a significant impact on their day-to-day well being. When a company allows employees to work remotely, it’s expressing confidence in their ability to manage their own time and produce quality work without strict guidance – a lack of paternalism that they’ll appreciate.
Matt Mullenweg is the founding developer of WordPress, which powers almost a third of the Internet. He’s also the founder of Automattic, a fully distributed company that powers a range of platforms (including WordPress and Tumblr) and has almost 1,200 employees in 75 countries. In a recent conversation with Sam Harris, Mullenweg points out that the demand for employees to be physically present at almost all times is an anachronism: “We inherited this from the factory model, where if you weren’t in the factory, you really weren’t doing work. But for some reason, we carried this over into knowledge work, which actually lends itself to being far more productive when you’re distributed.”
Again, this is what you’ll hear from many independent writers: distributed work isn’t just liberating – it’s an engine of productivity because it allows you to segment your time more efficiently. Writing is cognitively demanding, and there’s no reason why it should be done in eight-hour blocks in a single environment.
Mullenweg points out a few of the advantages of remote work that might not immediately come to mind. For example, while physical meetings are often dominated by whoever is the most outgoing or self-confident, a more distributed communication platform can open up a space for people who are more reserved, may not speak English as a first language, take longer to organize their thoughts, etc. This will lead to a wider range of perspectives and higher quality feedback. Mullenweg also points out that distributed companies are more focused on concrete outcomes and less fixated on superficial measures of performance (like how much time an employee spends in the office). Some employees may be able to do their jobs more quickly than others, and they should be able to use their extra time how they want to.
Beyond all the productive advantages of remote work, it can also prepare companies for shocks like COVID-19. Companies should begin to develop the infrastructure they need to support remote workers and facilitate collaboration so they can maintain operations in the event of a new pandemic or some other unforeseen circumstance that would require employees to work from home. Even companies that rely on physical co-location should have a contingency plan that gives them as much remote capability as possible.
There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 – we don’t know when cases will peak, how long the lockdown will last, or what the ultimate economic consequences will be. But we can be certain that how we work will change for good.
Credits: Matt Johnson, writer; Comfreak via Pixabay, image.