Last week, I wrote about the impact of remote work for knowledge workers. I believe the fact that companies have thrived during more than a year of remote work is going to drive some significant change, at many different levels. And this will have impact on education as well. This week, I would like to focus on what some of those changes might be.
First, has anybody noticed this, or is it just me? While many companies and managers are talking about bringing knowledge workers back - without clear or compelling reasons for why it is necessary - others have figured out something obvious. If your second biggest expense (after salaries) is real estate (your offices), and you can figure out how to have your employees pay for the place where they work, that’s a big financial win for the company. That’s right - many of us are paying for the workspace - part of our homes - where we do our employer’s work. And some of us are paying for paper, print toner, shredding services, etc. That has to stop - we need some recognition of this financial shift of things that companies used to pay for that we are now paying for. Perhaps a flat monthly stipend?
Second, one of the functions of our major cities is to gather large numbers of workers close to their work. Much of the design of New York and Chicago in the 20th Century, for example, was created by the decades long growth in offices and dense residential living enabled by mass-transit. If remote work continues to be sustained, as I think it will, the impact on cities will be profound. Office vacancies are already declining to recession levels. So many of the “support services” - particularly restaurants in the office dense areas of town - are struggling or have closed. If there are insufficient workers around to support them, this will continue. Cities will start to look much different than they currently do.
Third, working at home has many advantages, but a daily change of venue is not one of them. There was something good about driving to work, listening to the radio or a podcast, being around our co-workers - for mostly social reasons - and coming home at the end of the day. The routine provided predictability, change of venue, and an occasional lunch or drink out with friends and co-workers. But there was a dark side that we often complained about, but couldn’t see our way around. Before the pandemic, how many news stories did you read about the increasing length of commutes, or about the difficulty of working and balancing family life? The reduction of too-long, tension-filled, gas-guzzling commutes, and the increasing time to spend with our families - these are great aspects of the remote work world. But being cooped up at home all day… is not so good. So I think there will be more use of vacation time, more travel, and more use of local restaurants, that is, those near residential areas. And there will be more movement from suburbia to exurbia, since being close to work will be less important.
Fourth, one of the most important things we have discovered in remote work is how it has affected BIPOC knowledge workers. A recent survey of 10,000 workers found that 97% of black knowledge workers do not want to be in the office full time, as opposed to 79% of white workers. Further, questions during the remote work period of the pandemic that were designed to measure “sense of belonging” increased for people of color. The uncomfortable reality is that such workers are often subjected to various micro-agressions in the workplace, overlooked for promotions, and their contributions are often overlooked and/or undermined. It is racial bias, full stop. And it is pervasive in the workplace. But what we have (preliminarily) learned is that BIPOC workers have found that they prefer remote work, perhaps because it reduces the opportunities for micro-aggressions that used to take place in the office. This perhaps may be, in part, because when the team meets on Zoom, everyone’s box is the same size, and the uses of the chat box can also be a leveler. Further, I would hope that it also helps a manager to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard.
Finally, we return to one of our themes, that:
We are not all going to be working at home all the time. It is much more likely that some of us will return to the office some of the time. Our social lives will shift from our co-workers to our neighbors, which probably is not a bad thing. But overall, the changes noted here will be a matter of degree. Cities will not implode, but they will be reduced and changed.
For us in education, the changes predicted here will affect us as well. For K-12, having the parents of your students who are not so harried by commutes, etc. will be an improvement. In higher education, the hybrid style of education will - as it develops and matures - be more effective, and provide more flexibility for students and teachers.
Letters of Recommendation
I have been reading a book by George Saunders, the author of brilliant short stories and novels, and a professor of English at Syracuse University. The book is entitled A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. This is not a novel or a collection of short stories, but rather most of the content of a course he has taught for 20 years at Syracuse about these (and a few other) short stories by Russian authors. What I am enjoying about this book is not the Russian short stories - not my favorite genre or era - but the descriptions of his teaching method in between (and about) the stories.
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from George Saunders about how he teaches creative writing:
The deeper goal is to become more loving, more courageous, more accepting, more patient, but also less full of shit, so… to be able to really step up to the beauties of life and the horrors of it, without any kind of flinching. And really for once, open your eyes and see it, and if some of that could get into your work, that would be a plus.