Our planet was ripe for it. Our modern society was designed around the concept of cramming as many people into as small a space as is tolerable to maximize asset utilization and earnings. Asset here refers to anything designed to accommodate humans and earn revenues from accommodation. Think concert arenas, commercial airplanes, apartment buildings, buses and businesses in all their different forms.
The aggressive monetization of space has been both clever and successful. First, there’s the simple linear relationship between space and cash. Think about commercial flights; you can get chucked in the shoulder to shoulder, non-distinct, general population, economy class for a certain fare. Knees are stored at a perfect 90 degree angle. Being willing and able to pay more bumps you up to a seat which gives you an additional 30 degrees of knee extension. If you’re really willing and really able, you can get those puppies out to a near 180 degrees in first class.
But there’s also the inherent-value space proposition; because of location or design, this space is naturally worth more than the others around it and thus can be sold for a higher price. Think high-rise apartments on Miami Beach vs pretty much anything else. Think offices with a view vs cubicles, also with a view but possibly of a wall or a colleague. If you have more money you can have more space or, in addition to just more space, a better space.
Our corporate and work environments have been similarly designed. As an analyst, I’ve only ever worked in office environments. As you climb the ranks you earn more space graduating from shared desk, possibly to semi-enclosed customizable-walled cubicle, to enclosed office (with a real door) then finally to office with a view and a plant. For the record, I have no issue with this model. It gives employees something additional to look forward to and is a solid part of reward and recognition systems.
Then came the global pandemic. Whether we wanted to or not, we (office workers) were sent to our homes to do what we did in our offices. And we did this on very short notice; cleaned up our desks, grabbed the essentials (tiny desk cactus included), and logged on to our networks to keep the corporate machines going and the salaries coming. It worked! For the most part we realized that 100% (and more) of the work done in an office could be done at home. All we ever needed, it seems, were a fast, reliable internet connection and our tiny desk cactuses. And one of these two things can still be considered optional to some.
A fast internet connection allows us to smoothly connect to those wonderful Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings which quickly turn quirky when the dog interrupts or a teammate “accidentally” forgets to wear pants. A fast connection also allows us to work via our remote portals with multiple windows or programs open for multitasking. As an example, on the chart below, the United States is shown as having the 8th fastest internet speed worldwide in 2020. I have been working remotely from Miami, FL since March 2020 and have had only extremely rare instances of connection issues. And this is with significant levels of multitasking plus simultaneous conferencing.
Why did this surprise us? We’ve had the internet for years, 31.397 years to be exact, at the writing of this sentence. Granted, the speed of the web was not always able to facilitate this level of traffic and the accompanying hardware or applications were not always in existence. But again thinking back to my personal experience, every job that I’ve held in the past seven years could have been done remotely to a minimum of 90% of the duties. By force, my most recent job was performed 100% remotely. I could have been logged on from anywhere and achieved the same result.
The last five months have shown us that where we work from does indeed matter. Consider the commute; the average to-work commute time in the US stands at 35 minutes by one report. Over a normal work-year you can spend 19 days just getting to the office. Keep in mind this is only an average and there is potential for large variations around this number depending on location. But 19 full days each year is not to be taken lightly. This is a full additional vacation. And this is all your time, not the company’s; your workday only starts when you swipe in or log on. This is time you could have spent with your family, getting exercise, getting educated(er), or just sleeping.
The daily commute costs us more than just time. Would a working couple household, for instance, need two cars (with insurance, fuel and maintenance) if no one had to drive to an office? Motor vehicle sales could be reduced. When we take cars out of the equation we begin to see the economics really adding up. Getting cars off the road takes a significant bite out of a long chain of raw material consumption with myriad associated environmental and economic impacts. We’re talking about significant amounts of steel, aluminum, plastics, copper, leather, rubber and much more. Each material and each component has an industry behind it with its own supply and value chains. But cars are also great at taking fossil fuels out of the ground and putting them into the air; vehicles produce emissions. Thus if more people continued working from home we could potentially have healthier air and clearer skies. Clearly, the impacts of cutting the daily commute are too many and too complex to deal with fully in this piece. This will be revisited another time.
In addition to the commute, we’ve spent billions, if not trillions of dollars over the past decades building and refining our perfect office spaces. Most companies have corporate offices of some sort constructed from significant amounts of concrete, glass and steel, lit and cooled by electricity. And further, the where of work is the full-time work of numerous service providers including furniture and office supply companies, janitorial service providers, art sellers, security firms and tiny desk cactus growers. Humans invest a lot of money and resources into the where of work.
The Covid-19 pandemic brought scrutiny to places of work. Scrutiny jumpstarted the WFH (work from home) movement. And it was difficult at first. But then we started loving it. So much so that we’re now hesitant to return to offices. Susan Stick, general counsel for Evernote said it best, “you can’t put that genie back into the bottle”. Realizing this, some companies, even some countries, have already grabbed the baton and started running.
There’s a growing list of companies now allowing employees to work from home indefinitely and or permanently. The practice isn’t new but it’s adoption is accelerating, fueled by efforts to curb this or a future pandemic. The move could potentially allow companies to downsize physical office spaces and the associated overheads. Companies also seem to be getting more hours out of their employees who work from home, though this should not be counted as a positive for work-life balance of employees just yet.
WFH in Paradise
WFMC — work form my country (its not officially called this) — is one of the newer and more enticing trends in remote work arrangements. Tourism-based economies are welcoming foreign remote workers to stay on visas for up to a year. As we noted earlier, all you really need is a fast and reliable internet connection. And if it doesn’t matter where you log on from, why not do it from Barbados or Bermuda? Both these tropical mini-paradises have either announced or already launched their remote worker visa initiatives and more nations are expected to follow in the near future. There will of course be qualifying criteria, Covid-19 testing mandates and tax implications which are likely to differ per destination.
This, to me, is one of the most exciting counter-measures to the pandemic. Its a clever way to keep tourism-based economies moving while keeping companies working and employees engaged without feeling leashed to a physical office.
Remote work is not a new concept. Yet, we only deployed it on such a wide scale when it became crucial to business and economic continuity; pretty much when we had no choice. And if the circumstance of the pandemic had never intervened it is quite likely that the drudgery of a daily commute for millions of workers would still be in play today.
There are many things about WFH and WFMC that are still being refined; caring for kids, balancing the hours spent logged on, with actually enjoying being in your home, and of course, the blessing (or curse) of seeing the same non-digital faces every day. Many, both companies and workers, are attempting to bring balance to the force by adopting a middle-ground; mixing the workweek with WFH days and in-office days. This is a promising compromise. Whichever way it goes — genie inside or out of the bottle — we already know that productivity does not suffer. What’s left to do now is to settle into the new normal and give that tiny desk cactus the workspace it deserves.