Victoria Wells: Oversimplifying remote work as a moral issue does those who have truly benefited a disservice
By now everyone knows how much billionaire Elon Musk dislikes remote work and how he’s required his employees at Tesla Inc. and Twitter to work from the office or be fired, but the true reasons behind his distaste for the arrangement have proven to be more elusive — until now. Forget productivity drawbacks, Musk thinks letting people work from home is an issue of equity.
“I think that the whole notion of work from home is a bit like the fake Marie Antoinette quote, ‘Let them eat cake,’” Musk said in a CNBC interview on May 16. “It’s not just a productivity thing,” he added. “I think it’s morally wrong.”
He criticized the “laptop classes living in la-la land” for pushing to work remotely while also expecting service employees, such as restaurant staff and manufacturing and construction workers, to be onsite to do their jobs. “They can’t work from home, but you can? Does that seem morally right?” he said. “That’s messed up.”
Could Musk have a point? Looking past the absurdity of one of the world’s richest men and the CEO of a company that illegally fired people for attempting to form a union lecturing on workplace equality, the answer appears to be much more complicated than Musk might have considered.
Studies have shown that remote work has benefits for some marginalized segments of the workforce, and in some cases, might actually offer greater equity. For example, Black employees in the United States said they experienced major improvements to their working lives within a 12-month period of working from home, according to research from Future Forum in 2021. They reported being treated more fairly at work, and said interactions with co-workers improved. “Going virtual levels the playing field,” Ella Washington, a management professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, said in the report.
People with physical or mental disabilities also stand to gain from remote work arrangements, as they are able to work from the comfort of their homes without the barriers that come with commuting or navigating inaccessible workplaces. In the U.S., disabled workers jumped into the labour force in record numbers in 2022, with remote work credited for the increase, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show.
Women, too, have benefited from their newfound ability to work at home. As many juggle child- and elder-care responsibilities along with their jobs, they report greater work-life balance, less stress and improvements in burnout levels thanks to working from home. Greater flexibility has also led more women to come back to work, with labour participation numbers for women in Canada hovering near record numbers in April.
Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t drawbacks to remote work. Experts worry that women, the disabled, or minorities, all of whom are more likely to want to work from home and choose employment that makes that possible, might ultimately pay the price professionally for doing so. “Proximity bias” was a top concern among executives in 2022, according to another study from Future Forum. Employers and employees alike have expressed fears that working from home could make it harder for them to win promotions or be given other opportunities for advancement. Equity could suffer as a result, warned Mercer Canada chief executive Jacqui Parchment. “I worry about a future where white men find it even easier to build critical networks and career growth than in the past, because of differences in preference for in-person work.”
It’s obvious executives need to make conscious efforts to ensure diversity doesn’t take a step backwards in a remote-work world. But, if they really want to, bosses who follow Musk’s view that working from home is a “moral issue” have other opportunities to level the playing field between remote and in-office employees.
For one thing, the concept of flexibility is much more than where a person works. Better work-life balance, and the potential boost to productivity that follows, can be achieved by offering employees greater flexibility around when they work. That might mean allowing workers to schedule shifts around school drop-offs and pick-ups, or offering flexibility with attending appointments with elderly parents. On a broader basis, four-day workweeks can be implemented across all kinds of service industries, research shows. Plus there’s evidence the policy helps reduce employee stress levels and increases job satisfaction, which in turn have positive benefits on productivity and company revenue.
Employers might also consider raising wages for those people who must make the daily commute to come into work. Hybrid work saved the average Canadian worker $11,000, thanks to decreased spending on transit, gas and food eaten on the go, Cisco Canada research in 2022 showed. Those savings, more important than ever amid a surge in inflation, can be spread out to service workers and others whose jobs depend on showing up to work. Indeed, some companies in the United Kingdom have already given such workers “five-days-in-the-office” bonuses to compensate for not being able to provide flexibility around work location. Industries in hospitality, manufacturing and health care have all jumped on board.
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Oversimplifying remote work as a moral issue does those who have truly benefited from the practice a disservice, and even Musk acknowledged “there are some exceptions” to his view. Still, if employers really do care about making employees’ lives better and ensuring equity in the workplace, they have plenty of other avenues beyond work from home options to explore. They might even end up with a group of happier, healthier employees more willing to put in some extra effort on the job.
• Email: email@example.com | Twitter: vwells80
A version of this story was first published in the FP Work newsletter, a curated look at the changing world of work. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.
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