“No one on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’” - Harold Kushner
It’s only been 5 months in and yet this year has been instrumental in the feat of revealing the true strengths and weaknesses of nations all over the globe. From challenging their moral philosophies all the way down to their physical ability to scale and adapt, it really has shaken the entire foundations of what countries are made from. Some have reacted well to the storm, some however, not so well. Disregarding the performance of each country as that in itself is a completely different topic for discussion, there is a truly important factor to which I believe has had a seminal impact on the handling of COVID-19 – remote working.
As I’ve described in a previous post COVID-19 has completely changed the culture around remote working. In fact, the numbers in both have been somewhat mutually inclusive as without COVID-19, Governments would not have felt the need to encourage remote working, and without the increase of remote working there wouldn’t have been such a dilution in the rate of infection.
For the first time, companies and employees all over the world have experienced what remote working is truly like. Some have found it bearable; some have found it freeing, some have even hated it, but they have all experienced a glimpse through the window at the possible near future.
In today’s world, as described by Y. N. Harari in his book 21st Lessons for the 21st Century, tracking cause-and-effect relations is incredibly difficult. If you went to work, and on the way home stopped by your local grocery store to pick up some food for the family meal, and I take that food away from you just before you enter your house, your family will now go to sleep hungry. It is easy to grasp this, because it’s easy to see the cause-and-effect. However, one of the inherent features of today’s modern world is that its casual relations are highly ramified and complex. You could live at home peacefully, never lifting a finger to harm anyone and yet according to animal welfare advocates your life is interwoven with one of the most appalling crimes in history – the suppression of billions of farm animals to a brutal regime of exploitation. You’re not really to blame for all this are you? For you to even exist, you depend on an unfathomable network of economic and political ties that are all so tangled that it is impossible to answer the most basic questions such as, where’s your lunch come from, who made your shoes, what is your pension fund doing with your money?
All this may sound very philosophical however, the reason I recite the points Harari offered is because it applies to modern solutions. There are many resolutions that world Governments make in response to tackling specific problems. But due to the complex nature of modern relations and ties, there could be policies enacted elsewhere that could actually end up solving the very same problem that was left unresolved from the immediately obvious solution provided by the Government. Unfortunately, because the modern world cause-and-effect relations are so deep and intertwined the obvious answers aren’t always the best; an example of this would be poverty. If you were to ask one hundred random people on the street the question “how do we solve poverty?”, the most common answer you’d get is something related to providing money. However, out of all of the solutions that have been tried, there’s only one that’s worked time and time again: the emancipation of women. For someone who has been given the case file on Operation EndPoverty, liberating women to increase wealth isn’t something that immediately springs to mind as a solution. This is completely understandable, it’s incredibly difficult to see the cause-and-effect here because things don’t happen overnight and at a first glance it’s hard to see the relation. With me stealing your food before you get home, I only have to wait a few hours and I can see the direct cause-and-effect as its immediately related.
One of the more challenging efforts today is that many politicians and key decision makers opt for the most obvious solution that is often met with disappointment. Is the fault all theirs? Should have they spent more time investigating and researching viable options? Possibly, however, the modern world is rife with so many complex issues, at some point there just isn’t enough time to devote to them all. This then is where the obvious solutions creep in.
Although the long-term remote working cause-and-effect relations are currently hard to grasp and quantify, there’s no doubt that there will be some immediate benefits. Amid the emancipation of women, an immediate benefit recognised was increased self-confidence. For remote working it may also bring psychological improvements as individuals may feel more flexible and liberated. Looking more towards the longer term, where the emancipation of women led to socio-economic issues such as extreme poverty being reduced; for remote working, it may also bring socio-economic improvements such as wealth distribution – which I will I talk more about later. Although the long-term cause-and-effect relations of remote working won’t be immediately obvious, there is nothing to say that it won’t go on to birth a new working culture that contributes to a rise in life satisfaction levels and productivity. This very new working culture may even be the lifeboat that saves us from the cold waters of the inevitably rising tides of the automation revolution. All I know is that if this pandemic has given us anything to reflect on with regards to the potential of remote working – we have only just scratched the surface.
If incentivised who does it affect?
Let’s play out a hypothetical scenario. As of the start of 2021, the UK Government has pledged that they will be offering tax benefits to companies in the UK that offer remote working positions to those also living in the UK. Putting aside the complexities of what it would actually entail to bring that policy into existence, let’s just play out the scenario.
Starting 2021, all companies in the UK are now able to receive tax benefits when filling remote working positions. CFO’s across the country will be popping champagne at the mere thought of tax benefits, so they start to lean on their CEO’s and boards to consider moving towards a more remote working workforce. The sell should be somewhat simpler now as companies in the UK have already spent money on the IT infrastructure to enable remote working in response to surviving the lockdowns of 2020.
Financially, most people are aware of the points regarding cost savings due to reduced office space. Some people are also aware that remote working reveals a greater buffet of talent as now the entire UK demographic is at their selection. For example, a London company can now hire a Glasgow technical writer that maybe just as good for a fraction less of the salary. Consequently, for the Glaswegian, there’s a big rise in their pay as they are no longer employed by a local company who can only afford a salary relative to the local Glasgow economy.
Moreover, why does the company need to be in London? A lot of companies choose London as their base location as they feel the talent pool is greater, but as discussed above, they have the entire UK demographic to choose from – including those from London. This further reduces the gravitational pull London has on companies and individuals. Not to forget, if they were to move their office to a different city in the UK, it’s likely the costs associated with office spending will decrease also.
A more direct effect from the incentivisation could be that companies may experience a decrease in payroll spending as they may not need to pay a £100,000 a year for a London office-based individual. Instead, they can open up a remote working position and fill it with individual just as skilled in Newcastle for £80,000 a year. On top of the £20,000 a year savings in payroll, they can now receive tax benefits on the very same position that they just filled with a remote working employee. Taking this one step further, it’s entirely possible, that they may even be able to offer that very same employee £100,000 a year and still be paying less than they would for the London-based individual as they will still receive tax benefits on the remote working position. I understand these numbers are heavily simplified, however, you get my point.
With pollution reduction becoming an increasingly relevant topic for discussion nowadays it is no secret that remote working helps in this fight. Just this year, cities all over the world have experienced a mass reduction in their carbon emissions as a direct result of the enforced lockdowns that were made tolerable by remote working. If companies were to move towards a more remote working culture, they could virtue signal to their hearts content by aggrandising about being part of the reduction of carbon emissions. It will become almost like a trend to be seen to offer remote working positions. Almost like being vegan. All around the world there are vegans that wear their lifestyle like a badge of honour, some even go as far as to make it a part of their identity because for them it means something more than not just consuming animal products. For them, it’s a constant reminder that they are part of the solution and not the problem. It’s easy to see the possibility of remote working being a similar kind of trend.
Starting 2021, all individuals in the UK are now able to apply for remote working positions. Due to the benefits they receive from filling said positions, companies all over the UK are itching to find those who are not local to them. This gives the person from Llanelli a never before seen catalogue of positions that are now available to them to chase at their discretion. This reminds me a little bit of what online shopping brought to customers in small towns. There may not be any Fendi shops locally in which they can browse for their luxury taste in clothes, but nevertheless internet shopping brought those luxuries to their front door with a few clicks of a button.
We have already somewhat hinted at some of the financial benefits of what remote working can bring to individual employees with our Glaswegian technical writer example. But let’s not forget the general benefits of remote working with regard to the day to day expenditure. Sticking with our Llanelli worker, depending on what the job is, if it’s a more specialist job, they may have to travel to Swansea or even Cardiff as that’s where the office is. Mode of transport is more than likely to be a car or train, which means that’s a few hundred pounds a month going on transport. With remote working there’s now a few hundred pounds that is immediately saved and kept which can go towards more crucial needs. This can be classed as an immediate benefit.
With remote working the opportunities are now rife and plentiful. Looking more towards the future, our Llanelli individual may feel that it’s probably wise to start venturing into a more technological industry - so, they decide to take advantage of their computer science background and become an AI engineer. Due to there being no local employers that offer AI engineer positions, they decide to look online for a remote working opportunity. They find hundreds. From companies that are scattered all over the UK, they are now able to cherry pick to their discretion. Because it’s a new field for them, they will want to start at the trainee level – so they scour the web and finally find one that interests them and they go for it. After a couple of weeks, they get the job and to their pleasant surprise they are offered over £30,000 a year. This is not the accurate resemblance of a trainee AI engineer salary now. But, combined with the fact that this may be a large and profitable company who are earning tax benefits from filling this position, it’s entirely possible that this could be accurate. For the individual, this could be £10,000 a year more than what they were getting before whilst at the same time cutting their costs of not having to travel to work anymore. Again, immediate benefits that are easily identifiable from the cause-and-effect relations of remote working.
Freedom & Well Being
Another feature that is often appreciated is the individual freedom gained from remote working. Due to there being no office to attend and no commute to trek, individuals now have more freedom and time to do what makes them happy. They do not have to get up earlier to beat the traffic to get into work to then have to leave work early to beat the traffic home. They are now not involved in this so-called “rat race”. An immediate and noticeable benefit is that the individual enjoys more sleep in a world that is deprived of it. This becomes increasingly more valuable when you realise that two thirds of adults in developed nations are not getting their 8 hours sleep a night thanks to the “sleep loss epidemic” as dubbed by the WHO. Weirdly, individuals are more likely to be more productive when working from home as opposed to being in the office. This can be down to the lack of tea room talks and a wide variety of other factors, but never the less, in a world where productivity is often measured by output, this may even allow people to get more things done - further increasing the amount of time they get to themselves.
There is of course, a natural downside to remote working and it is in fact one of the biggest problems – social interaction. We are social beings and when working remotely, especially for a company that is in a different country to you, it can be almost impossible to socialise with your co-workers. You have the occasional online video meeting, but this will never really satisfy your requirement of human interaction. For a lot of people this will be the toughest aspect of remote working. Sadly, there aren’t any immediate solutions to this. For those who will be treating the office as a way to make new friends it will be a very big sacrifice, however, it is at their own discretion to do this. They are in no way forced to go into a remote working position. For some, it may even be a sacrifice that they are willing to make as for them, the benefits outweigh the demerits. But giving people this freedom, in itself is the power.
Offering my perspective on this, or shall I say speculation. I often think the social interaction narrative of remote working is often superficial. Sure, it is true that you’re not interacting with your colleagues in the same way, however, there isn’t a limit on social interaction. Often people confuse remote working with working from home, they are not the same. I would agree working from home definitely limits social interaction, but remote working not so much. Additionally, I think there are many people falling victim to fallacy by confusing the effects of a lockdown with the characteristics of remote working - because let’s not forget, the lockdown mandates no social interaction, so to smear remote working for being at fault here is somewhat ill-considered. With remote working, you’re not confined to a location. What’s stopping you from working at a friend’s house who is also working remotely? What’s stopping you from working in the park? Providing you comply and adhere to your companies remote working policies with regard to conversations about your work, there’s no reason to suggest that you can’t do your job in the company of other people. In fact, I can completely see that the more remote working becomes a culture, there will be more innovative solutions that will arise to help individuals deal with its deficiencies. Additionally, I can also see, in specific sectors and industries remote working may get rid of the traditional 9 to 5 Monday to Friday working weeks. Since employees are now not mandated to come into an office that is only open 5 days a week, they may get given a piece of work and told to get on with it - allowing the individual to pick their own working times. “Just get the job done in a decent time” maybe a new mantra uttered only to those who are privileged to lead the remote working life.
When we think about satisfaction and human happiness a lot of people believe that objective conditions are one of the main supports to this. Following Y. Harari again on this, we depend more on our own expectations than objective conditions. Expectations however tend to adapt to conditions - including the conditions of other people (social media makes this 100 times worse). The objective conditions that one might gain from commuting to a job they hate, to get paid money to fund those 2 week holidays every year are maybe higher than those received by a carer who has to provide emotional support to those they care for. But when talking about expectations, maybe the nurse is more satisfied with life? So, if the people who work the 5 day weeks at an office were to trade in that routine for a remote working position. Maybe the very action of opting out of the rat race in itself gives an individual satisfaction. Now they have the flexibility, freedom and power to work how they want and where they want, giving them more reason to be satisfied as now, they’re not involved with the inner world stresses of office working. The expectations of life have now considerably dropped as the daily routines and scheduling’s has come to an end - and with it the stresses and expectations that are associated with them.
Of course, all of this is complete speculation, however, it’s not impossible. In fact, when you really contemplate this and ponder on the different directions this can take, it’s entirely possible.
Starting 2021, companies and employees all over the UK are taking full advantage of the remote working incentive. The country’s carbon emissions have seen a reduction, job satisfaction and work life balance are better than ever and people really are coming to grips with this new culture of remote working. Innovative solutions and ideas have birthed from the requirement of filling the void that the shortcomings left exposed and the culture itself has given rise to a whole new host of brand-new working methodologies.
One factor that is often forgotten or not realised at all is that remote working has a good standing in offering a solution to the distribution of wealth. It’s not uncommon knowledge that London is the financial centre of the UK. There has been many political and business moves that have been made over the years to try and divert and distribute this wealth all over the UK but as previously mentioned above, its often the most common and obvious solutions. Spending money on smaller communities by building bigger and better Universities in order to attract more students may give rise to a brand-new host of companies looking to hire. Some Government agencies and corporations have made quite a big deal in migrating their offices to a smaller area in order to jumpstart the local economy. Have these decisions worked? You could definitely argue that they made a difference to the local economies. But there are thousands of local economies all over the UK, are you really going to try and squeeze a big corporation or University into all those communities to try and increase wealth? You may do it to some, but what about the rest? Also, what has any of this done to dilute the gravitational pull of the big city of London? As previously discussed, these are direct cause-and-effect relations. If a big corporation moves to a relatively medium-sized area it will have an immediate effect on the local community. But in what way does it affect the community on the other side of the country? Just like me stealing the food you bought for your family, other than your family, who else is going starving? Is the neighbour next door going to sleep hungry? I wouldn’t have thought they were. This is because it was a direct and immediate cause-and-effect relation towards your family only. To affect the neighbour next door, I would have to ransack the neighbourhood grocery store. This then also affects the neighbourhood, not just your family because the grocery store has a deep-rooted network of cause-and-effect relations throughout the neighbourhood that all of the houses share. So, like the corporation setting up shop in Bristol, sure that’s pumped money and jobs into Bristol economy, but what has it done for Liverpool? To address these issues, you need to think deeper rooted than just throwing in a big corporation or a Government stimulus package because you’ll need one of each for each of the communities of the UK.
Remote working is where this could change. Remote working can be the neighbourhood grocery store that every local town and city has relations to. By incentivising remote working, you’ve given companies a financial benefit and incentive to offer jobs to those who aren’t local to the company. For a community of 50,000 people, if – for a very simple examples sake – 5,000 of them where to land a remote working job. Already the salary is most likely going to be higher than their previous salary due to the reasons already stated. This new salary - whether it be a £10,000 increase or even a £30,000(in the more extreme cases and specialist fields) increase - is going straight into that local economy. If 5,000 people that all received let’s say an average of £6,000 to their salaries. This means a combined gross amount of £30,000,000 goes into that local community every year. Not to mention this will happen up and down the UK. Yes, that is a very simple and naïve example that isn’t taking into account actual in pocket cash after tax but again, you can see my point. Year by year, each local community will garner more and more wealth making them less dependent on the financial provisions from the Government. One of the main contributing factors with regard to why civilisations fall is uncontrollable population movements. When people realise that the selling point London once had fails to exist in the same strength anymore, people will simply move. Over time, wealth will be distributed across the UK as more and more people spread out. So, it’s not that the civilised London will fall like ancient Rome, I’m sure it will be fine. But instead, it allows for the rest of the UK to have a fair chance at improving their local economies without having to compete for Government spending. Lastly, a benefit often overlooked is that communities across the UK will become more multi-cultural. In the modern world this can be a very sensitive topic, so depending on your views on this topic can depend on whether it is a benefit or not. For me, it is, as there’s nothing I love more than learning about new cultures.
To close, this gives the Government more opportunity to spend money where its crucially needed - whether it be on the NHS or the education system. After all, this year has revealed some weaknesses in our NHS that were due to a lack of past funding so it’s entirely possible that the healthcare sector could be moved to the top of the list when future funding conversations arrive.
Looking to the future…
The future is looking very gloomy currently, especially when the Chancellor of the Exchequer warns there will be a “severe recession like no other”. However, I think most can agree that technological advancement will be the host that brings the biggest threats within the next 100 years. From AI to automation, many people will lose their jobs to a new area of technology that will in turn provide them with new opportunities for new jobs – something that the agricultural and industrial revolution taught us. More specifically, the farmer may have lost his job due to a machine, however, he reskilled and became a factory worker. This isn’t catastrophic in the cases where the re-skilling/up-skilling is relatively mild. Although going from a farmer to a factory worker isn’t quite the same as going from a bartender to a Robot Engineer. These are two separate professions completely - a point argued by Harari in 21 Questions for the 21st Century. A job for life just isn’t a thing anymore. Humans may be moving from job to job every few years in the not too distant future. Just as they become efficient at one job, a redundancy meeting may shortly follow. Additionally, education is becoming harder as the curriculum taught in schools are forever behind what the future will bring. Kids are also spending more time indoors than ever before due to technology which means social interaction for kids is now entailed by communication through a headset or screen.
Remote working isn’t for everybody, that I am aware of. There are entire industries that just wouldn’t work from this model, from hospitality to retail to healthcare. There are areas in which remote working cannot exist. But with the rise of technology, and more and more people moving over to jobs that involve working at a computer. Perhaps starting the remote working culture sooner rather than later may actually prepare people and help ease their transition. Not to mention the whole host of benefits I’ve sermonised in this post. It’s possible that those with remote working jobs (not careers) will probably benefit more than anyone. In the coming decades, as the periods of employment get shorter, maybe it’s not a bad idea to help individuals stay abstracted away from being too attached to a job. Today, as people suffer the strains of early morning commutes and late-night office hours, they are sub-consciously becoming attached to this physical routine. The time they spend commuting, sitting through boring meetings, it all factors in to building of attachment. They may not feel it, but to be told “We don’t need you anymore”, after all the suffering, is enough to affect an individual’s mental health. So maybe remote working could help in this regard. Maybe the lack of attachment to your job will actually make it somewhat easier to handle when you don’t have to do it anymore. Not to mention the reduction in difficulty with regard to being able to apply for other remote working jobs that could now be rife in the UK. I’m in no way a psychologist, I cannot predict the future, but I do believe we need to start having serious discussions about the ways we can lessen the blow from future pandemics and technological revolution. Hopefully this post gave you some interesting insights to what ways remote working could help us in the future, because as a wise man once said, “A person has two lives, the second starts when they realise they only have the one.”