Overnight, remote work became the norm in 2020. In a rush to recreate our economy, America set aside certain lingering questions about the role of remote work in our permanent economy, and more pointedly, the role and rights of its workers. What is the remote worker owed? And, to what extent, if at all, are remote workers different from their office-bound counterparts?
As the executive director of Tulsa Remote, an organization that offers remote workers $10,000 to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma, these questions informed our identity long before the pandemic. As the world verges on a new normal, it’s time to start answering our most fundamental questions about remote workers—and to codify their “Bill of Rights.” While numbers are still too early to predict, it’s inevitable that even after a critical mass of the population is vaccinated, the ranks of permanent remote workers will be substantially larger than they were before the pandemic.
The right to work remotely in the first place
Thought leaders spent decades predicting the imminence of the remote-work economy. Part of what prevented it from taking hold was remote work’s perceived illegitimacy. As the New Republic points out, “Absent employees risked being viewed as less dedicated, or suspected of trying to shirk their duties.”
Now that the majority of the U.S. workforce has gained extensive, firsthand remote work experience, this perception has largely shifted. We all know, now, that remote work is work. Which is why, when this pandemic is finally over, every worker capable of keeping up productivity while working from home should have the right to continue to do so.
Of course, there will always be projects that require or clearly benefit from in-person collaboration, and there will always be people who prefer to physically work alongside their colleagues. What I’m suggesting is a more flexible, balanced conception of work. A world in which people work in-office or at-home according to their own needs and preferences, without penalty or judgement, and without a false narrative of negative economic impact looming over their decision.
The right to upward mobility via remote work
Any self-aware conversation about remote work must acknowledge the fact that it is, in many ways, a luxury—another prize for those who, through luck or circumstance, have safely navigated their way into the knowledge economy. Essential and service workers, who, even at the height of the pandemic, were asked or forced each day to risk exposure for a paycheck, have largely been left out of the remote work conversation to date. Obviously, there are large swathes of the economy—high-paying as well as low—that can never be remote.
My contention is that remote work should be a choice, not a privilege. Any person so inclined should have access to the tools and training necessary for remote knowledge economy work. The rise of AI, and the joblessness it threatens, makes this ever-more imperative. Knowledge economy companies should collaborate with each other and with the relevant government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and educational institutions to ensure that everyone has the option to upskill into roles that can work remotely.
The right to a life outside of work
The demolition of the work/life divide has been much discussed in recent years. In theory, we know we shouldn’t be sending (or responding to) emails at 9 PM on a Saturday. In theory, we respect Slack’s Do Not Disturb function. We’re troubled by the encroachment of the workplace into every aspect of life.
But when push comes to shove—when we’re dealing with something really important, really urgent—we make an exception. And when you work in a fast-paced, high-stakes work environment—where pretty much anything can feel important/urgent—you end up “making an exception” five or ten times a week. With widespread remote work further dissolving the distinctions between work and life, the issue only intensifies. A recent Harvard Business Review survey noted that a large number of remote workers “reported feeling that they needed to be constantly available, such as being expected to respond to electronic/telephone messages immediately, be available at all times, and be responsive after work hours.”
For this reason, it is more important than ever that managers and employees collaborate on sensible, day-to-day parameters. When do you absolutely need to be accessible? When should you log off for the day? Which meetings are mandatory, which are optional, and which can be converted into quick Slack chats? Open-minded collaboration on these and other questions helps ensure that no one feels unduly stressed, and prevents work from turning into a burden.
The right to mutual trust
The last year or so has been light on pleasant surprises, but there have been a few bright spots—among them, the success of widespread remote work. At the start of the pandemic, many feared that ubiquitous remote work would tank productivity. However, the opposite has been true: in almost every reported case, productivity levels have either remained constant or increased significantly. As much as anything, this has been the result of mutual trust. A fundamental assumption of good faith on the part of both employees and employers. Recent research on remote work from Gartner demonstrates that employee engagement is boosted 76% in organizations with high levels of trust. It is our hope that this trust, and this understanding of the value of flexibility, persist long past the conclusion of the pandemic.
The right to asynchronous or flexible schedules
The project of reimagining work—of building a more fluid, decentralized workplace—necessarily entails a reimagining of the workday. The traditional 9-to-5 still largely prevails: there is an understanding, at most companies, that employees will work more or less the same hours, and will be deskbound and readily accessible throughout that period. In some industries, and for some projects, this is unavoidable. But a high-functioning remote workplace should be receptive to the fact—ignored for decades under the old paradigm—that people are neither identically wired, nor identically situated, that some people do their best thinking at night, or have children to attend to during the day. Additionally, in the coming years more and more businesses will be composed of people working in different time zones. For all these reasons, remote workers should—when feasible—have the right to design asynchronous or flexible schedules that function for them and for their team.
The right to fair and equitable compensation
Though many high-profile companies have announced that they’ll be going permanently remote, most businesses will not be abandoning the office. Some might implement a hybrid model, some might insist that everyone return to the office full time and others might leave it up to their employees. With geographic restrictions lifted, employers can pick from a vastly expanded talent pool. They also save money on office space and related costs, even with allowances made for subsidized remote work expenses. Meanwhile, employees who relocate to more affordable cities can wring more value out of their salaries, and help distribute wealth throughout the United States (more on this below). Some companies have argued that compensation should be adjusted to reflect a given employee’s circumstances—that paying a heartland resident coastal wages doesn’t make sense. Hopefully what we’ll see in the coming months and years is an evolving dialogue on this subject, one informed by a growing understanding that the quality of an employee’s work matters more than where they’re working from.
The right to subsidized coworking memberships or home office expenses
Companies are eliminating or shrinking office space at a rapid clip and saving money accordingly. Of course, to do their jobs effectively, remote workers still need some of the advantages the office once conferred: adequate and effective workspace, wi-fi, reliable computers, etc. It is to the benefit of both companies and employees that some of this money gets rerouted to improve remote working conditions—either through coworking subsidies or through home office expenses. Co-working spaces have been touted as the model of the future since long before the pandemic, and for several reasons. They allow for the kind of cross-functional collaboration (within or between companies) that is a big selling point of in-person work; they allow, depending on location, for shorter commutes; and, for some, they offer a much-needed reprieve from limited at-home workspace. Meanwhile, for those who prefer to work at home, the right, ergonomic workstation can immeasurably boost happiness, health, and productivity.
The right to distribute economic opportunity across the United States
A truly remote workforce has the potential to stimulate the U.S. economy. It can rectify a severe imbalance of our current employment landscape, in which the bulk of our knowledge workers are crammed into a handful of ever-more-expensive coastal cities while some other areas of our country stagnate. When we de-center New York or San Francisco, every city in the nation becomes a site of potential migration and accelerated growth. Whether they’re returning to their hometown or heading out for lesser-known cities in the American heartland, today’s remote workers have the chance to distribute the bounty of the knowledge economy to a degree that would have been unthinkable just four or five years ago. Unfortunately, many companies—even largely remote ones—still insist on hiring people exclusively within commuting distance of their headquarters. A reconsideration of this stance stands to benefit not only employees and employers but the whole civic architecture of the American workforce.
Ben Stewart is the Executive Director of Tulsa Remote, a program that offers a $10,000 grant and additional benefits to eligible remote workers who move to Tulsa to join the program’s 900+ member strong, remote work community.