The Coronavirus Is Creating a Huge, Stressful Experiment in Working From Home

Even before the pandemic struck, remote work was accelerating in the U.S. But the next few months will be a very strange test of our white-collar future.

A laptop in a mix of germs
Ruby Aitken

About the author: Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Work in Progress newsletter. He is also the author of Hit Makers and the host of the podcast Plain English.

Several seconds after the invention of the personal computer, people predicted that our jobs would eventually be emancipated from the office, and home would be the thrilling future of work.

Consider me your correspondent from the future. And let me tell you, as someone working from home this week, it’s not entirely thrilling. My desk is a kitchen counter, the constant cleaning of which makes for good procrastination, and my cafeteria is an emergency-stocked fridge, the routine raiding of which makes for even better procrastination.

Joining me this week are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people taking refuge from the coronavirus. Not all, to be sure. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 29 percent of Americans can work from home, including one in 20 service workers and more than half of information workers. So while servers are still manning the restaurants, the technology sector has effectively gone remote. Amazon, Apple, Google, Twitter, and Airbnb have all asked at least some of their employees to stay away from the office.

The coronavirus outbreak has triggered an anxious trial run for remote work at a grand scale. What we learn in the next few months could help shape a future of work that might have been inevitable, with or without a once-in-a-century public-health crisis.

Even before the pandemic struck, remote work was accelerating in the U.S. The share of the labor force that works from home tripled in the past 15 years, according to the Federal Reserve. Two of the accelerants are obvious: living costs in metros with the highest density of knowledge workers, and technology, such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, that moves collaboration and gossip online.

But the early returns from America’s home offices are mixed. In The New York Times, Kevin Roose writes from his makeshift quarantine bunker that remote work impedes the creative sparks that fly when we are interacting with actual people rather than their thumbnails on Slack.

In the 2016 paper “Does Working From Home Work?” a team of economists looked at Ctrip, a 16,000-employee Chinese travel agency that had randomly assigned a small group of its call-center staff to work from home. At first, the experiment seemed like a win-win for workers and owners. Employees worked more, quit less, and said they were happier with their job. Meanwhile, the company saved more than $1,000 per employee on reduced office space. But when Ctrip rolled out this policy to the entire company, it caused a mess. One complaint swamped everything else: Loneliness.

Beyond lost creativity and companionship, the gravest threat to many companies from remote work is that it breaks the social bonds that are necessary to productive teamwork. Several years ago, Google conducted a research project on its most productive groups. The company found that the most important quality was “psychological safety”—a confidence that team members wouldn’t embarrass or punish individuals for speaking up.

But online communications can be a minefield for psychological safety, according to Bill Duane, a former Google engineer who now works remotely as a corporate consultant and researcher. “Whenever we read a sentence on Gchat or Slack that seems ambiguous or sarcastic to us, we default to thinking, You fucker!” Duane told me. “But if someone had said the same thing to your face, you might be laughing with them.”

Office banter, bad jokes, and even unctuous corporate talk in the hallways can be dismissed as empty blather. But Duane calls these things “the carrier wave for psychological safety.” Almost everything that doesn’t feel like work at the office is what makes the most creative, most productive work at the office possible.

Remote work might not work for many people in the future. But the status quo is already failing millions of people.

As jobs concentrate in downtown areas without affordable housing, workers’ homes are pushed into the far suburbs. The American commute is a psychological and environmental scourge that increases depression, divorce, and fossil-fuel emissions. The average commute in the U.S. recently hit an all-time record of 27 minutes one-way. That’s almost an hour a day spent away from friends and family, in a machine coughing fumes into the sky. Allowing people to work closer to home—whether at a coffee shop, in a co-working space, or on a couch—could be a win for work-life balance, for happiness, and for the biosphere.

The geographic concentration of jobs also means that the powerful industries are clustered in a handful of rich cities. Eighty percent of U.S. venture-capital investment goes to just three states—California, New York, and Massachusetts—and about 70 percent of all internet-publishing jobs are either in the Acela corridor between Washington and Boston or the western crescent from Seattle to Phoenix. A future with remote work might annoy some, but that annoyance must be weighed against an alternative future where much of the middle class is financially barred from corporate headquarters in finance, media, and tech.

“With housing shortages on the coasts, you have more extremely talented people living outside those metros,” said Hiten Shah, an entrepreneur and adviser to remote-work companies such as Automattic. “As a result, companies have to build remote-work features into their culture to get access to that talent.”

Another downside of headquarter-based work is that the concentration of labor in high-income metros can attract people from the same socioeconomic pool, who share the same ideas and blind spots. “One thing that’s not talked about enough is that being distributed, you have a less homogenous culture,” said Gabriel Weinberg, the founder of the search engine DuckDuckGo, whose workforce is distributed around the world. “Working remotely, people are never forced to get a drink after work. You’re not substituting work socialness for community socialness. They are in their own communities. So you’re really getting real diversity of thought.”

I have presented two pictures of remote work. In one picture, it is a desolate and lonely experience that often saps creativity and collapses the narrow distance between labor and downtime. In the next picture, it is a boon to social life, family life, egalitarianism, neurodiversity, and the planet itself. The messiness of the remote-work picture is a sign of the idea’s infancy.

“Right now, remote work isn’t working for most companies,” Shah said. “That’s because we spent the last 120 years learning how people can be productive in an office.” The rise of the telegraph and the railroad in the late 19th century didn’t just give us retail, advertising, and mass distribution; it also gave us managerial capitalism—middle managers, top managers, and modern hierarchies at corporate headquarters. The 21st-century economy has already changed retail, advertising, and mass distribution. Perhaps inevitably it will also change work and management.

But first, companies will have to learn that remote work is different work. Managers will have to get better at judging productivity by setting and monitoring specific goals rather than using the proxy of office attendance. Workers will have to adopt extraordinary conscientiousness when it comes to dividing their day into deep work, office communications, personal time, and civic or family life. Employees will have to develop new habits, such as keeping copious documentation of every meaningful work interaction, so that teams across space and time are always up to speed on what’s happening “down the hall.” And bosses will have to normalize more video conferencing and corporate retreats, because their employees will continue to crave face-to-face interaction.

In the current panic, Twitter is filled with rosy predictions that the virus will be an inflection point in the future of distributed work. But a pandemic is not an appropriate time to determine what kind of labor arrangement is optimally productive on a per-worker basis. It is rather a moment for companies to build out the kind of technology and culture that, when the economy is back to full force, could make remote work easier for those who want to take advantage of it in a future where white-collar work might involve a little less commuting and a little more home.