Are You Taking Advantage of the New Freedoms?
Let's recognize that working from home sort of rules
In the 14th century, the Black Death led to higher wages across Europe. And of course it did — you know what’s a strong negotiating position? “I am the only blacksmith left in Europe” is a strong negotiating position. When it’s either you or a flaming pile of corpses in the town square, you pretty much get to name your price. Across Europe, serfdom was dismantled; social scientists have found that regions hit hardest by the pandemic were more democratic centuries later. The powerful pushed back against runaway labor prices by passing a law pegging prices to pre-pandemic levels, which ended up being an early example of price controls being an ineffective way to fight inflation. But in fairness, back then they didn’t have 700 years of evidence showing that that doesn’t work.
Covid won’t result in the same level of societal reshuffling as the Black Death, but it’s caused changes. The most obvious one is that for many people, remote work is here to stay. Before the pandemic, remote work was a slightly strange and possibly suspect way of doing things, kind of like getting a culinary degree by mail. But for many people, it’s suddenly the norm, and I think we might under-appreciate what a life upgrade that is for many people.
Economists struggle with stuff they can’t quantify. There’s one measure — “utility” — that tries to capture literally anything in the world that a person might value. So: The look of wonder in a child’s eye? Being brought to tears by a beautiful piece of music? Embracing another human being and knowing — not feeling, knowing — that you’re not alone in the universe? That’s utility — cram all that crap under “U”. It’s not as good of a measure as, say, “i”, which is interest; we know what that number is, you can look up the Federal Funds Rate right now. Utility is economists’ attempt to capture comfort, happiness, the specialness of human connection — all of that bullshit that economists aren’t comfortable with, generally speaking.
In my opinion, working from home sends utility through the roof. It starts with the small things: Sweat pants, comfy socks, scented candles, sofas, snacks, cat access (optional), a permissive-if-context-dependent policy regarding flatulence, and full control of the thermostat. You can also — and this is huge — take a nap sometimes. We’ve accepted that kindergarteners need to curl up on a little mat and snooze in the afternoon so that they aren't monstrous little fucks for the rest of the day. Yet we’ve stubbornly failed to recognize that this dynamic does not end at age five, or ever. That society-wide pigheadedness is the reason why curling up on a mat after lunch and catching forty winks for the long-term good of the company is considered career-limiting.
Not having to commute is also a godsend. Commuting is expensive, time-consuming, bad for the environment, and it really makes you want to murder people. I’m a calm person, but shitty drivers and people who violate subway norms push me closer to becoming Javier Bardem's character in No Country for Old Men than I’d like to admit. I am completely unsurprised by the many studies that link less commuting to more happiness. Eliminating my commute has reduced to zero the number of times I come home from work drained, starving, and having just killed three people.
Working from home affords more flexibility. Need to let in the plumber? Watch a sick kid? Sleep off a hangover? This is all possible when you're working from home. I have long found it insane that most businesses try to schedule appointments Monday-Friday from 9 to 5, i.e. the exact times when people are least likely to be available. Barber shops have known for centuries that they should be open on weekends, but Verizon — market cap $194 billion — will never figure it out. Working from home makes routine chores more manageable and eliminates the humiliating process of having to ask your boss if you may pretty please leave early to drive your friend home from dental surgery.
The main argument against working from home is that it's bad for productivity. I understand this argument, but I think that it badly underestimates my ability to sit at a desk and do absolutely nothing. I’ve been capable of sitting at a desk and appearing productive while actually doing jack-fucking-shit at least since Minesweeper became part of the standard Windows bundle in the '90s. At this point, it might be my most highly developed skill; I should probably list it on my resume. To those who believe that trapping me in an office that you’re paying for by the way will make me more productive, I say: I don't know who you think you're dealing with, but I have not yet begun to slack off.
Ultimately, most jobs come down to deliverables. You either produce or you don't. If an employee makes the thing that they’re supposed to make, who cares whether they made it in an office or at home? In some cases, the freedom to work from home will improve the quality of the deliverable. For example: I’m a writer — an ARTIST, you see. It’s a somewhat unusual job whose trappings are not universally understood, as expressed by this scene from Barton Fink:
The point is: Writers are whiny narcissists who must be free to indulge our process. An office environment is not always conducive to that process, especially the part that involves taking a bunch of drugs and staying up until 4AM (which is not how I do it but I’m also not very successful). In fact, I’d guess that not many people are inspired by corporate offices; it’s hard to imagine a modern-day William Wordsworth ensconcing himself in the splendor of an office and producing works like:
I wandered lonely as an IT manager; That see o’er an array of Lenovo tech; When all at once I saw a laptop;Alone amidst the sea of cubicles; Upon which unapproved software t’was installed; Harkening the revival of mandatory anti-malware training…
Unfortunately, it’s mostly only white collar fields that benefit from the shift to home work. So, let’s recognize that anyone whose job requires that they show up in person is missing out on this Working In Comfy Socks Renaissance. And that truly does suck; it seems like yet another argument for progressive taxes to fund things like family leave and health insurance, but I digress. And for what it’s worth, being on a comedy writing staff is a job that sort of needs to happen in person; brainstorming over Zoom is like that old SNL bit about doing vaudeville via satellite. So, pity us poor, blue-collar comedy writers; we’re like construction workers or nurses, just a bunch of salt-of-the-Earth laborers doing the jobs that America needs done. Yep: Truck drivers, waitresses, staff writers on Young Sheldon — peas in a pod, we are.
In my years at EPA, I sometimes wondered why we weren’t allowed to work from home. This was the 2000s and early 2010s, when laptops began to replace desktops and video chat ceased to be a guaranteed exercise in blurry frustration. Reducing carbon output through travel and other energy use was sort of important to EPA (duh), and yet the culture of working from home never really took root. I wondered what might force a chance. Now I know: Covid forced a change. It’s a change that I think is — on the balance — a good thing. Those of us who are lucky enough to partake should recognize the improvement. Economists may struggle to quantify the value of working in comfy pants and fuzzy socks, but that doesn’t make the effect any less real.