At some point between March and April, two-thirds of humanity was under lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and a significant portion was working, or struggling to work from home (WFH). 

What does this entail? What are its unique opportunities and challenges? Which coping strategies function best? And what does this portend for the future, or at least until specifics and a vaccine are discovered?

Working from home is a luxury

Working from home is an option, but only for a privileged few. For the majority in developing countries (say, India or the Philippines), many of whom were in the informal sector in the first place, it’s not at all feasible. The lockdown has been for them the fastest ticket to dependency and destitution.

Sheltering in place has made social inequalities among those living in Western, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) nations even starker. For those in “essential jobs”, meaning employed in supermarkets, healthcare, farms, meat-packing, transport, sanitation, and so forth, WFH is simply impossible. Ironically, “essential” here is a euphemism for work grossly undervalued. Despite their importance, these jobs are poorly paid, mostly carried out by women and immigrants, in precarious conditions, and depending on the countries (for instance, the US), without health insurance or unemployment benefits.

Calling them “heroes” may make us feel better by expressing indebtedness and gratitude, but it does little to improve their plight. Healthcare workers in Spain, for example, would very much trade the round of applause at 8 pm for more effective “personal protection equipment” (PPE) which government has routinely failed to provide. So now there’s pot-banging all over the country. Many frontliners claim they’re not “heroes”, but ordinary folk trying to make a living. 

The government mandate to WFH translates for a good number into forced leaves with diminished earnings, if not entirely without pay, and for scores of millions, unemployment and loss of income. Already in these past two months we’ve witnessed the fastest rate of job destruction and bankruptcies in recent memory. Perhaps marginally better is the situation of some self-employed, freelancers, independent contractors, or participants in the “gig economy”, more used to flexible working conditions. Although it’s not the same when you’re in travel and hospitality, where demand is close to zero, as when you’re remotely processing a steady flow of medical, legal, or financial records.

So what does WFH actually mean for those who keep their jobs and are lucky to have decent internet connections?

In some respects, WFH is not completely new. “Telecommuting” was supposedly invented by people from NASA in the early 1970s, referring to employees who went to “satellite offices” instead of headquarters for motley reasons. Even in pre-Covid days, this work arrangement was already familiar to new mothers. In the US, eight percent of employees worked from home at least once a week, and two percent did so all the time. These were the better educated members of the workforce, a third of whom had college degrees. Yet despite technological advances, however, working from home still isn’t plausible for 60 percent of jobs, not just hairdressing. 

Once adjusted to the technicalities of Zoom, the biggest impact of working from home is the blurring of boundaries in space and time. The public (workplace, professional contacts, office hours) bleeds into the private (home, family, rest). The challenges of being constantly on call are compounded for those with young children abruptly thrust, with nary a warning, into distance-learning activities. And although fathers think they do their fair share of teaching and child-minding, 80 percent of mothers believe otherwise, taking this extra strain in their own careers. Then there’s managing cabin fever, one’s own and that of others, which can take a toll on relationships, especially between couples. 

The winners…

WFH is a game that has produced clear winners. Companies like Amazon and Microsoft have chalked up noteworthy gains in revenues during the pandemic, quickly reflected in skyrocketing stock prices. Amazon is even looking into hiring 100,000 more workers in fulfillment centers, all the better to deliver “hot” items such as toilet paper, hand sanitizers, bleach or disinfectants (non-ingestible!), masks, and groceries, especially baking products. 

Certain sectors in finance (Capital One, PayPal) and media (Omnicon) are registering higher levels of productivity, bolstered perhaps by savings in rent and travelUber presents an uneven picture, with UberEats, the food delivery business in an uptick, while the ride-sharing service is on a steep drop. Because of people staying in place, air quality, especially in cities, has largely improved, which of course benefits everyone.

Apart from avoiding contagion, home-workers are also able to cut down, maybe entirely, on commuting costs; in principle, they can also clock fewer work hours for the same pay. And entrepreneurs with enough capital can start a business with lower costs due to the depressed economy, or avail of cheaper, government-backed loans.

… and the losers 

We’ve already mentioned the biggest casualties among those who lost jobs or saw work hours drastically reduced, unable to WFH. It’s been the brick and mortar retail apocalypse (Neiman Marcus, J. Crew, Macy’s), and the worst nightmare for the global airline industry. As part of response and recovery plans, all sectors will have to reimagine themselves and their market relationships, from education (online teaching), to automotives (robot-made electric cars), from fashion (loungewear) to the restaurant industry (gourmet take-away).

But even those who remain gainfully employed suffer severe setbacks. Work is not just about earning a living; it’s also about having structure, order, and rhythm in our lives, cultivating a variety of social connections, and an opportunity for deep engagement with a larger community. The workplace could be for unattached millennials, for instance, the warp and woof of their identity. Social isolation can be devastating. In any case, for most individuals, the family alone is unable to supply these needs.

WFH causes added stress by forcing people to juggle multiple roles, while persistently anxious over one’s future, and their family’s (the Class of 2020 might want other jobs besides contact-tracing). There’s a tendency to overcompensate, for fear of job loss or to demonstrate one’s worth. For those already disposed, this is more than enough to trigger burnout, depression, and other mental conditions.

With the excuse of monitoring productivity, employers can even make use (or abuse) of snooping software or surveillance technology on their home-workers. Unsurprisingly, employees could get back at this intrusiveness and resort to cheating, if only to prove bosses right. Thus, organizational trust goes on a free-fall when most needed. A valuable lesson in these circumstances is that loyalty cannot be imposed or trustworthiness bought.    

Making lemonade

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, we are often told. This applies to WFH under Covid-19 as well.

Although trillion-dollar companies such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Twitter don’t seem to be in a hurry to get back to working from work, pushing return dates to the fall  or even to 2021, that’s not the case with the majority. This only shows the chasm that separates Silicon Valley winners from the rest who have become whiners by necessity.

Until targeted medicines and vaccines are discovered, we’re stuck with social distancing, which means we won’t go back to packing workers into crowded office spaces or much less to hot-desking. That’s why WeWork is going down the drain. Imagine the elevator wait times due to social distancing in office towers.

Given the virus’ contagion cycles, some Israeli professors have proposed a staggered 10-4 work calendar, where employees can stay home for 10 days, then come to the office for 4, and still drive the transmission rate to zero. That would be a boon to vital, in-person work and services. Others suggest simply cutting down to a 30 hour workweek and keeping it that way. Productivity need not suffer, they argue, and while engaging in sophistry they claim, “more could work if everyone worked less.” In any case, because everyone grows tired, working more does not always mean working better.

Societies can rediscover the value of health as a public good and invest in healthcare benefits and care subsidies for dependents. Some economists even advocate putting a price on social distancing efforts and including it in the GDP.  

The possibility of exploring “Uberization” also seems promising. It consists of applying information technology to labor markets, such that we pay people for performing tasks rather than for holding jobs or titles. It tests the limits of transaction cost theory, according to which firms exist only because it can be more efficient to assign certain tasks in-house, that is, hierarchically or through authority, rather than contracting them in open markets. It may be rational for agents (buyers and sellers) to give up some freedom to be guaranteed better outcomes or results. Generally, this has worked for ride-sharing, although with substantial hidden costs, especially for drivers. But that would be a lot harder for receiving quality education, unless one’s happy getting by with Google and Wikipedia.

Successfully working from home depends on how well we’re able to relate through the physical and psychological distance to others, taking into account their embodied condition and the various roles they inhabit. Despite the fancy bells and whistles, virtual communication is no substitute for in-person dialogue. It misses out on all the nonverbal cues, such as context, empathy, and expressive force essential to genuine human understanding.

It’s also helpful to realize individuals aren’t just workers but family and community members as well. Balancing the demands of these overlapping and intersecting roles through pre-set time and place allotments is too mechanistic. Instead, companies and workers ought to engage each other, deliberating on the values, priorities, and objectives they share. Once an agreement is reached, they’ll then be free to pursue these common goods responsibly, bearing in mind that work, wherever, whenever, is just a means to these ends.       

Republished with permission from Alejo José G. Sison’s blog, Work, Virtues, and Flourishing

Alejo Jose G. Sison

Alejo José G. Sison teaches ethics at the University of Navarre and Georgetown. His research focuses on issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and...