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.
To expand on your point, one key aspect of workplace discrimination is that many women and historically underrepresented groups experience a hostile work environment, which can include micro-aggressions (seemingly innocuous remarks or touchings that are not innocuous), macro-aggressions (devalued and unfairly criticized performance, being overlooked for promotion, lack of comparable mentoring, etc.), and the combination which has a profound effect on one's ability to perform at work and beyond reaching one's personal well-being (physical and mental), home life, sense of identity, and on from there. How many of us cannot even imagine the daily "chore" of enduring that much more than the challenge of just the work itself? The pandemic has shown these workers a way to do their job and hopefully keep the hands and comments of others away from them. The pandemic has probably made the workplace worse in this respect for non-knowledge workers. Hopefully we do not need (or have to wait for) another pandemic to figure out how to effectively address the other aspects of discrimination in our society.
Fantastic post as always. This discussion brought to mind two things that have been recurring interests/obsessions of mine over the past almost two years: pandemic architecture and third places.
"If remote work continues to be sustained, as I think it will, the impact on cities will be profound." This is, I think, underselling the massive changes in both architecture and city planning (or re-planning) that will happen in the coming years. Early in the pandemic, I read a piece on Slate called "The Post-Pandemic Style," which discusses just how the design aesthetic that permeated the 20th century was largely driven by the 1918 flu pandemic. It has stuck with me mostly as a thought exercise as to how this pandemic will change things.
One way I suspect things will change is that more consideration will be given to "third places." Quoting Wikipedia, the third place is "the social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home ("first place") and the workplace ("second place")." During the pandemic, our homes became our first, second, and third spaces. This had mixed results, as we've seen in the rash of recent studies about how people felt about working from home.
Those who had homes large enough and unpopulated enough to create separate work and play spaces in their homes, away from their living areas, generally didn't seem to mind working at home. For the rest of us, having a dining room pull triple duty as living, work, and play area was...problematic.
So, when I think about future work, it will be, as you say, hybrid. I think the idea that people need separate living, work, and play environments with little to no overlap will continue to grow even as people resist the idea that we need to all be in the same office at the same time. In other words, I think the pandemic has begun to show just how necessary third places (much less separate first and second places) are, but I think it has also shown that those places do not have to be fixed points on a map.
Anyway, as I said, interesting post as always. Stay well.