The coronavirus pandemic has kicked many Americans out of their offices to work from home, as workplaces shut down to stop the spread of the illness. Philadelphia’s stay-at-home order, which went into effect Monday, only permits workers employed by a “life-sustaining” business or government agency to keep commuting. Others must work remotely or have had to stop work entirely.
The development has left employers and employees wondering: Will these new patterns reveal remote work as the future?
By Daniel Little
Remote work sounds amazing. Jobs and tasks are not tied to a desk. Work can be performed anywhere. It offers a solution to balance employees’ professional and personal lives, where workers have the flexibility to design their days for the best outcome. What employees want most is control over their work lives. Remote work seems to give that.
Now, because of the pandemic, more companies are asking employees to do their jobs from home. Cities and states are ordering nonessential businesses to close. Microsoft, Google, and Zoom have made versions of their work from home software free. Telecommuting is becoming the new normal for many office workers.
These mandatory closures may permanently change our work patterns. Forced by the coronavirus to embrace remote work, employers may find employees do not want (or need) to return to the office once closures end. But that arrangement is only realistic for white-collar workers. Management, professional, and administrative careers overwhelmingly can take their work out-of-office. For most occupations, including the entertainment workers, technicians, artisans, and craftspersons of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) union I work for, remote is not an option.
The biggest work crisis the coronavirus has exposed is the need for more institutional support for those who do not work behind a desk. Paid family and medical leave and access to affordable health care give hourly earners necessary control of their work lives.
Arts and entertainment, accommodation, and food service workers are all but barred from remote work. A stagehand cannot move scenery from their home office. A bartender cannot pour a drink over the phone. A hotel porter cannot move bags via video conference. These are some of society’s most at-risk workers. The average hourly wage for leisure and hospitality workers is less than $15/hour, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Now, with mandatory closures, these wage earners find themselves without jobs.
In 2018, only 29% of workers could even consider working from home, BLS data shows. While over 47% of those with at least a bachelor’s degree worked at home sometimes, only 9% of workers with a high school diploma as their highest education level did.
This throws work from home into sharp relief. Remote work arguably widens economic inequality, giving control of work-life to the affluent and denying that power to the blue-collar worker. As the pandemic forces these changes, employees that can work remotely will do so. Those who cannot are eliminated.
All workers need paid family and medical leave. Although the bipartisan Families First Coronavirus Response Act (HR 6201) will provide relief for other industries, the provisions for emergency paid leave won’t apply to displaced entertainment workers because of requirements for days worked on a job to qualify.
The unique nature of the entertainment industry means that many of its professionals may not work every day or even every month. Existing paid leave programs by and large don’t apply to this workforce. Entertainment workers depend on the income from each project to support themselves and qualify for our collectively bargained health plans. Rules designed specifically for the traditional single-employer relationship, or even for multi-employer work in the construction industry, are likely to exclude our members and many freelancers in general.
We can do better. As is, remote work is emblematic of the widening gap between “the haves” and “have-nots.” While work from home may become the new norm for some, unemployment is the future for others.
Daniel Little is a Philadelphia-based representative of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada.
By Evette Dionne
Remote work has always appealed to me as a journalist who needs intense quiet to focus — and as a first-generation college journalist without the resources to take unpaid or low-paying internships in some of the most expensive cities in the United States. I first began working remotely in 2010, when I couldn’t secure affordable housing in Maryland for an editorial internship. Now, as the editor-in-chief of a feminist magazine with staff spread out across the United States, remote work culture is something I think a lot about as I usher a team through the benefits and challenges of not seeing one another in person on a daily basis.
I oversee a four-person team of editors who all live in different time zones. Somehow, in deadline-driven journalism, we produce a website and a magazine without encountering many obstacles. When I joined Bitch Media as its third remote employee in 2017, the idea of decentralizing our Portland, Ore., headquarters was relatively new. The organization’s leaders realized they’d have to widen the pool of potential employees to increase staff diversity, so they opened job opportunities to candidates all over the country.
Over the past three years, there has been a steep learning curve in moving from an in-person headquarters to a remote work culture, but for the most part, it has succeeded for a few key reasons: structured communication, flexible office hours, and enforced processes.
Everyone on my team knows exactly what they’re responsible for, when it’s due, and the steps it takes to get from an idea to a finished product. Having fleshed-out editorial processes — or processes in general — allows my team to work closely together without actually needing to be physically close. We have weekly meetings and can answer one another’s questions at a moment’s notice on Slack. Most important, we frame our remote working culture as a chance to actually put into practice the feminist values we espouse individually and as an organization.
Not only does that include an unlimited vacation policy, but it also means allowing people to structure their workdays in ways that make the most sense for their schedule and needs. Maybe that comes in the form of afternoon breaks to pick up their children, or morning workouts — remote work cultures, like ours, believe that all employees can decide what their day should look like. It’s an ethos that most employers — beyond those who truly need to be face-to-face, such as the retail and service industries — should adopt in some form.
Remote work options force companies to create better communication between employees. Since remote workers can’t walk to someone’s desk to ask a question, supervisors and others responsible for helping to set the work culture have to be intentional about how employees communicate needs and build community. That intentionality allows companies to address issues like the expectation to always be available, which can be combated with designated Slack hours, and avoiding burnout.
For workplaces that aim to be more equitable, remote work seems a good pathway forward: Parents who can’t afford child care can be present for their children while also getting work done. Families who need caregivers can help out a loved one without losing income because of those obligations. In a world where companies punish pregnant people and women are less likely to be promoted, leveling the playing field — even if it comes in the form of separating everyone — is the absolute best bet for the future of work.
Evette Dionne is the editor-in-chief of Bitch Media, and the author of the forthcoming book, “Lifting As We Climb: Black Women’s Battle for the Ballot Box.”
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