Before it was mandated for millions of workers by the coronavirus, remote work was an occasionally controversial practice. While some management studies have claimed that working from home increased employees’ productivity and happiness, and others have indicated the exact opposite, company policies around remote work have usually been the result of something a bit more capricious. For instance, former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer—who infamously claimed to have logged 100-hour workweeks and slept under her desk during her tenure as a Google programmer—banned Yahoo employees from working remotely after she suspected employees were slacking off in the privacy of their homes. Companies like Dell, on the other hand, have encouraged some employees to work remotely to cut down on overhead.
Since a wide range of so-called office work in the digital age can be performed almost anywhere with an internet connection, office guidelines around working from home—like most other workplace rules—depend less on what’s practical or desirable for employees and more on the particular management philosophies (or pathologies) of the person in charge. I’ve worked in white-collar offices where employees could work from home whenever and for however long they pleased with nothing more than a simple “WFH today” dispatch to co-workers, and I’ve worked in other offices, doing the exact same job, where working from home was strictly prohibited, and a receptionist marked, to the minute, the precise time you walked in the door each morning.
That’s to say that the sweeping power of employers—more than the various pros and cons of remote work itself—is perhaps what we should foreground when thinking about the pandemic-induced turn to working from home for millions of office workers. While there are benefits to remote work—no commute, relative flexibility, sweatpants—certain drawbacks are apparent now that we’re a few months into the situation. With no physical office to leave at the end of the day, and particularly with the threat of layoffs hanging, many office workers are now putting in longer hours and watching work quickly bleed into life. In some ways, that’s just an intensification of the pressures they have been facing for years, as employers have increasingly required employees to stay tethered to their phones and email at all hours. “The WFH Forever revolution promises to liberate workers from the chains of the office,” New York Times columnist Charlie Warzel wrote this week. “In practice, it will capitalize on the total collapse of work-life balance.”
One other especially troubling consequence of the disappearance of the office is that a potentially permanent increase in remote work will almost certainly make it harder for workers to fight against those very conditions. Grace Reckers, an organizer with the Office and Professional Employees International Union, who’s worked on a number of union campaigns at tech companies and nonprofits, told The New Republic that organizing offices with a mix of on-site and remote workers, or workers across several locations, has always presented certain challenges. For one, remote workers aren’t physically part of the daily “water cooler talk” that often seeds a union drive in an office. And as more and more workers go (or stay) remote in the wake of the coronavirus, those types of informal conversations could very well dwindle for everyone. “I do think there’s a lot of conversation that gets lost when people aren’t physically interacting, aren’t walking to lunch together or passing each other in the halls,” Reckers said. “And what a lot of people have mentioned since Covid is that they don’t feel as comfortable reaching out to their co-workers as they would have in the past, because they haven’t spoken with them in a few months now. Even though they used to sit near each other in the office, now there’s no natural point of connection.” And even as messaging services like Slack and email become a growing part of contemporary union campaigns, employer surveillance—on company laptops or phones—presents real risks to workers hoping to keep campaigns private in early stages.
At the same time, the evaporation of any sense of job security in the wake of the economic crash also has the potential to generate new interest in organizing. The years following the Great Recession, for instance, saw a wave of unionization across industries like digital media, academia, and tech, as budgets were frozen or slashed, and employees in once-prestigious fields were laid off en masse or asked to do more for less. Though unions in fields like tech and media sometimes seem like a different species from their industrial counterparts, most of the reasons why office workers choose to unionize in the first place—job security, pay and benefits, better working conditions, and greater dignity and autonomy on the job—in the end aren’t terribly different. “There’s no guarantee that from one Monday to the next we will have a job,” Josh Borden, a member of a group of Pittsburgh-based Google contractors who unionized last year, told The Guardian. “It feels like being on the edge of a cliff all the time.”
Lately, a few major tech companies have seemed suspiciously amenable to the idea of prolonged (or even indefinite) remote work. Giants like Google, Facebook, and Salesforce have extended their work from home policies until at least the end of 2020; Twitter and Square have outdone them by promising to make their remote work options permanent. That, as Warzel noted, is a bit unsettling given that tech companies are notorious for finding methods of wringing as much productivity out of employees as possible. While in pre-Covid times, that usually meant a combination of competitive work cultures and lavish on-site perks that encouraged employees to spend as much time at the office as possible, in the age of remote work, it might entail requiring not just longer and longer hours but also new forms of worker surveillance and diminished pay or benefits. The same employers that installed nap pods and well-stocked snack cabinets in order to keep employees in the office for long hours before the pandemic are likely to find new ways of extracting the same amount of work, if not more, when a worker’s apartment becomes their full-time office.
If the office is adapting, models of organizing will have to adapt along with it. To that end, ongoing organizing efforts by contract and gig workers—who have had to navigate the lack of a centralized office from the start—might offer some inspiration. For instance, Vanessa Bain, a shopper for Instacart who has organized other Instacart contractors into a grassroots advocacy network, first launched the group through Facebook, then built up membership by staking out grocery stores to find other shoppers to recruit to the cause. Reckers, too, says that despite the pitfalls that come with organizing outside of the traditional office, there’s been at least one unexpected advantage of the shift to remote work. “Before Covid, it was always a challenge, when building a campaign, to find a venue and a time to meet that was accessible for everyone,” she said. “When everyone’s working from home, it’s a lot easier to jump on a call.” Whether the pandemic will spell the end of the office as we know it is still an open question, but the fundamentals of work as it exists today—widespread instability, exploitation, alienation—have stayed pretty much the same.