Try reaching out to potential talents over LinkedIn about an “exciting opportunity in the [insert industry name] sector” and one of the first things they’re likely to ask is whether or not they can work from home.
Over the course of the pandemic, the sheer comfort, flexibility, and privacy that remote work has given employees all over the globe have turned this previously limited practice into something most workers now expect.
This massive change in how we work has given us as much as two to four hours of extra time. Where does this free time go? Apparently, to upskilling, baking sourdough bread, and working a second remote job.
While it took businesses, especially outside the tech sector, years to fully embrace remote working, it’s actually been the expectation of future work since at least the 1960s.
The Overdue Shift to Remote Work
You know those listicles about the whacky predictions that people in the past had for the future? Ones like these? Often, these future predictions of ages past receive a few snickers for overestimating the pace of technological advancement. But many of these outdated predictions have actually come true. Aside from video calls, virtual reality headgear, and robot vacuums, people of the past were able to successfully predict that we’d one day be working from home.
‘What Will Future Homes Look Like?’ is a documentary filmed in the 1960s that contains a ton of predictions for the home of the future. Unlike the wilder illustrations of the 1800s-1930s, the documentary makes tame and grounded claims, among these being cramped apartments and remote school and work.
“Technology is opening a new world of leisure time.” Narrator Walter Cronkite tells us, walking across the room to a retro take on today’s personal computer. “This equipment here will allow [a man] to carry on normal business activities without ever going to an office away from home.”
Sounds accurate so far, right? Until you realize that the documentary got something wrong: these predictions were for the year 2001, a full 20 years before work from home became a reality for millions of workers.
Though think tanks of the 20th century had already expected a shift to working from home, businesses were slower to adapt due to the established office culture. Many employers and management just don’t trust remote work.
In the Before Times, remote working was a privilege granted to employees who had been working for a company for years and who had always performed at the top of their game. This helps ease the main doubt employers have about having a work-from-home policy: that no one working at home is really working.
It took a global pandemic and employees’ refusal to work in unsafe conditions to finally tilt the scale in favor of going remote. Even then, not everyone is convinced. Hard numbers still can’t dispel doubts, some of which come from employees who chose to return to the office, that remote workers are not putting in their fair share.
That said, the documentary goes on with its litany of charming predictions: “One government report predicts that by the year 2000, the United States will have a 30-hour workweek and month-long vacation as the rule.”
Obviously, that didn’t happen.
“A lot of this new free time will be spent at home.”
Largely true because of lockdown restrictions. What it failed to get right, though, is what we’ll spend that time doing. Netflix binge-watches aside, the COVID-19 pandemic has given a select few a chance to engage in new hobbies, re-evaluate their lives, and even work second jobs. All of these have helped re-shape our lives during the new normal.
Work From Home, Garden From Home, Bake From Home
The 2020 lockdowns saw the closure of several businesses in the restaurant and tourism sectors. The number of restaurants that have been permanently shuttered by the pandemic run from as low as 10% to as high as 17%. Food trucks felt the weight of the pandemic the hardest with 22.5% of them being put out of business by March 2021.
With fewer people going out to eat, smaller food businesses, especially humble street vendors, have been forced to close shop. A good chunk of the loss stems from lowered foot traffic in previously bustling city centers. Before the pandemic, restaurants located near multiple office buildings could count on a regular flow of hungry worker bees flitting in and out of cubicles every lunch break. Work from home cut restaurants off from the honey pot, redirecting the flow of money to food delivery apps like GrubHub, Doordash, and Uber Eats.
Oh, and plant sellers.
Though many of us are natural couch potatoes, watching Netflix and scrolling mindlessly through Reddit and Twitter arguments can only tide you over for so long. Once you’ve spent a few days refreshing your news feed without getting any actual new news, you start looking for more productive hobbies.
For millions of consumers, that productive hobby was taking care of plants.
As other industries, like the fashion sector, slowed down to an almost complete stop, plant sales soared all over the United States. People bored out of their minds at home spent an average of $211.30 per person in the southeastern part of the United States alone.
The majority of these plant lovers were Millennials who made up 55% of those surveyed. Of course, buying plants doesn’t mean just buying plants. Since many of these plant purchasers were first-time gardeners, having had no time to tend to Monstera before work from home began, they were also buying pots, fertilizers, mulch, and other gardening supplies. Each new hobbyist spent an average of $209.83 on gardening miscellany.
Other than rookie horticulture, employees working remotely during the lockdown drove sales for baking products up by as much as 24%. The hottest trend of Summer 2020 wasn’t a cute outfit, it was sourdough bread.
Working from home had given people an unprecedented amount of free time to spend on hobbies, exercise, and other self-enriching activities. Along with the quiet and change of pace in life came more somber introspection about whether it’s really worth swapping all this freedom and peace for a hectic work life.
For Many, Remote Work Means Shorter Commutes, But More Time Spent Working
For better or worse, the 15-second bed to desk commute had given many people time to think during the pandemic.
The stress brought on by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic sent mental health issues skyrocketing worldwide. A paper published by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly four in 10 adults in the United States reported symptoms indicative of anxiety and depression disorders during the pandemic, a significant jump from the one in 10 statistic reported in 2019, the last year of normalcy before the pandemic hit.
Among working-age adults, the stress is attributed to a variety of factors. Of course, who wouldn’t be anxious when there’s a highly infectious disease threatening to kill you and your loved ones? But the main stressor for many has been mass layoffs and shorter working hours that have left employees struggling to make ends meet.
But narrow this down to work from home culture and you get more mixed results. Some employees working from home reported experiencing more loneliness due to isolation from coworkers and the comfortable familiarity of the workplace. For these people, remote work isn’t just working remotely, remote work has been tainted by the other definition of the word: isolation from a larger whole.
This workplace loneliness can hurt employee’s job performance as the lack of social contact deteriorates bonds and makes it harder for teams to collaborate.
Despite this, another part of the working population is thriving in a work-from-home environment. A summary from Apollo Technical found that people working from home were 47% more productive on average, largely because they spend less time on chit-chat around the water cooler.
Though employees in less than ideal work conditions reported deteriorated mental health and burnout due to increased expectations to stay available 24/7, other studies found that working from home resulted in less emotional exhaustion and cognitive stress, key factors in keeping people at the top of their mental condition.
With more mental energy at their disposal and greater pressure to make a living in the wake of a virus-induced recession, some employees started to work second jobs.
Employees Juggle Not One, But Two (Or Even Three) Remote Jobs
Remote work didn’t just mean more freedom with how you spend your day, but extra leverage on the negotiating table.
Employer receptiveness to moonlighting varies depending on company policy, industry, and the exact position an employee has in both jobs. Though moonlighting has obvious benefits for employees, employers are less than happy with the idea that their remote workers flirt with secondary employment.
If this blog from a private investigator firm is to go by, there’s reason to believe that some employers are going as far as hiring private investigators to make sure their employees stay faithful.
But the potential legal consequences haven’t discouraged remote workers from moonlighting. The common belief is that, as long as they’re able to meet expectations for both of their jobs, then they’re going to continue moonlighting anyway.
As Forbes reported, working a second job has been a way for white-collar workers in back-office rolls to double their income. Despite the grumbling from employers and disgruntled co-workers, the additional income from a second job is the only way for some employees to keep up with increasing costs of living. Wage growth has been slowing down to a near halt since the 1970s, giving people no additional way to increase their income without juggling a second, or even third, job.
Is Work From Home Here to Stay?
Productivity stats may be on the side of remote work, but unchanging office culture and employer doubts may send us all back to the office regardless of our preferences.
Major tech companies in the United States have started to re-open their offices this 2021. Tech industry giants like Google and Apple may have delayed their return dates, but they’re still calling employees back to the office in October. At the farther end of the spectrum, Asana and Lyft have decided to put their return to offices as far back as 2022.
The reason? A new variant.
The Delta variant of COVID-19 emerged in late July of this year and quickly became the predominant strain of the virus in the United States. Not only is the new variant more contagious, it’s also notably deadlier and is known to infect individuals even after complete vaccination.
But the way employee sentiments are developing, remote work may become a standard inclusion in employment packages regardless of whether the virus lets up.
Just a month before news of the new variant broke out, the trending piece of news in the business sector was that employees were threatening to quit (and actually did quit) rather than give up working from home.
Life away from the office has been good for many employees. What’s not to love about more time with your family, extra leisure time, and zero hours spent in traffic? The lifestyle that the 1960s promised might just come true and though the 30 hour workweek is still a pipe dream, a standard 9-5 may start to exist only on paper.
Interestingly, this isn’t the first time a pandemic has given employees more negotiating power with their employers. The Black Death that rampaged through Europe from 1347 – 1352 killed 20 million people, making labor more scarce in the process.
Naturally, European lords weren’t keen on giving in to demands for higher wages and enacted laws that penalized peasants for clamoring for better pay. But this wasn’t to last as other lords resorted to upstaging each other with extra ‘in kind’ payments or even outright paying previously unheard-of sums to their workers.
Considering that wages have risen at their fastest rate in the past several years, it looks like the coronavirus pandemic is set to repeat history.
In that case, we can expect work from home to finally become the new normal that our 20th-century predecessors have predicted it would be.