Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Will Work Really Change That Much?

 As people look ahead to the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, many are heralding a work-from-home revolution. But for centuries, it’s been easy to overstate predictions about the future of work. Even when they are not just plain wrong, such predictions are, at best, only partially true because how people experience work varies tremendously by education and skill level, gender, race, class, age, unionization, geography, sector, occupation, employer, and more. Even someone in 1935 who predicted a future of greater unionization in the wake of the then-new National Labor Relations Act would have been more wrong than right. 

Predictions about remote work are likely to suffer the same fate. Even during the height of the pandemic, less than half of U.S. workers were working remotely, and having the privilege of being able to do so was much less likely for Black and Hispanic workers and those without a college degree. When women choose flexible working arrangements, they are more likely than men to be perceived as having weakened career commitment. So even if we think that the future of work will be significantly different because remote work outlives the pandemic, this change will likely reproduce inequalities rooted in intersectional combinations of gender, race, and class. So at a fundamental level, this doesn’t sound like much of a change.

But will remote work even outlive the pandemic? The optimistic prediction is that workers who have been able to work at home will be able to have the autonomy to choose how to best structure their working arrangements. Most workers lost this autonomy with the advent of industrialization and the shift from home-based work to mills, factories, and offices. So at first glance, this could be a significant change for some workers. But less optimistically, this could become more of a return to pre-industrialization work arrangements than workers imagine. In a widely-publicized editorial, the CEO of Washingtonian Media openly admitted that if workers are rarely on-site, then “management has a strong incentive to change their status to ‘contractor.’” Indeed, Nicola Countouris and Valerio De Stefano warn that only employees with “highly-desirable, hard-to-find, firm-specific, ‘core’ skills” are likely to remain as regular employees while being allowed to work remotely; others are likely to be reclassified as contractors, with the accompanying loss of benefits and security. So even if it looks like workers have a choice of working remotely, for many it could be less of a free choice and more of an economically-coerced choice. Again, this doesn’t sound like much of a change in the fundamental nature of capitalist work.

Industry leaders have also been trying to lead the narratives around the future of remote work. Finance industry leaders have largely been preaching the need to return to the traditional office while technology industry leaders have signaled greater willingness to continue with remote work. These differences may stem from a variety of reasons, such as assumptions of how to manage workers, a need for different mentoring methods in certain settings, or the tech industry’s self-interest in selling products that support remote work. More generally, there are multiple reasons why a return to traditional work is likely, such as a need for belonging, learning from others, and separating work from home. But in any case, these narratives are laying the foundation for decisions about the future of work that will likely be made by employers, not workers, without significant worker voice.

While (some) employers are re-assessing their policies on work, it is also likely that workers and their families will be doing their own re-assessments. One recent survey revealed that a full-time, stay-at-home parent is the most popular family structure for caring for young children except among those earning more than $150,000. So 25 percent of women are thinking about reducing their labor market attachment, including dropping out of the workforce altogether. Others are re-assessing whether low-paid retail jobs are worth it when they face bullying from the public because of masks, their race, or other things that have become politicized and divisive. But until there are significant shifts in power relations, a recognition of deep-seated structural inequalities and privilege, and changed social norms, these reassessments are likely to yield individual and family decisions about work that react to the options available to them rather than shape new forms of work in meaningful ways. If work is going to shift more fundamentally, we need to center power and public policy, and do so in identity-conscious and intersectionality-aware ways.

So in thinking about the future of work, we need to remember that work is complex and diverse. If we focus on remote work, increased flexibility doesn’t fundamentally change the nature of the employment relationship. Workers are still trading their time for money fulfilling the policies and requirement set by employers. More importantly, a focus on remote work renders a majority of the workforce invisible, especially those who have traditionally been most vulnerable and least well-off. This is where a fundamental change is needed the most. So if we are looking at remote work to see whether work is really changing, we’re looking in the wrong place.

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