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.
Read: Agoraphobia and the telecommuter
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.