Big tech and universal telecommuting

It has gone great so far, but I don’t think it is socially optimal to be doing this forever.  Here is my latest Bloomberg column on that topic, 2x the usual length, excerpt:

If Twitter, Facebook and other tech companies shift toward everyone working from home, it will mean less reliance on esprit de corps and morale to ensure performance, and more management using direct financial incentives and project- and output-based monitoring. Virtual tools can help organize teams, but they simply can’t replicate the intellectual frisson of “gathering the smart people” together, and this could damage performance and innovation.

And:

There is some evidence that when employees work at a distance, they don’t put in extra hours or extend themselves for the benefit of co-workers. That probably means a better work-life balance for many people, but perhaps also inferior performance from a lot of companies over the longer haul.

This move away from workplace morale as a motivator will help self-starter employees, but it may not be good for tech labor overall. In essence, without a local workplace ethos, it is easier to commoditize labor, view workers as interchangeable and fire people. The distinction between protected full-time employees and outsourced, freelance and contract workers weakens. A company can make the offer of, “If you hand in your project, we pay you,” to virtually any worker around the world, many of whom might accept lower wages for remote roles.

Bringing new workers on board is an especially difficult problem for this model.  In the short run, of course, that is a minor concern but over time it grows.

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Yahoo, famously, had serious issues with work from home.

However, tools today are far superior. Video conferencing is somewhat more advanced. Documents have moved completely to the cloud, and the collaboration is fantastic. A tremendous amount of "socializing" is conducted over chat in tech companies, a trend that has been increasing over the last decade. Finally, code tools have always been well suited for remote work, and this has gotten better over time.

We will see how it plays out. Its plausible that WFH will turn out differently than in the past.

As for California. Please.

What lessons can we learn from Yahoo? They created some internet "real estate" in the 1990s, and have never really worked out what to do with it, other than stick some advertising billboards up and shuffle mediocre strategies. They're almost the anti-case study, they could do anything and nothing really ever changes.

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Yahoo is a bad example. Their "innovation and productivity" went downhill fast after they stopped WFH. It turned out that their star engineers and product people value not having to waste time on commutes. Startups that can better accommodate talent win in the marketplace.

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If California tanks, the US tanks.

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...that these super smart tech leaders are at least as aware of the risks as Cowen. So they will apply their big brains to making sure they keep the good parts of the culture to mix with the good parts of telecommuting.

I suspect the equilibrium will eventually involve some combination of in person and remote work, maybe with clusters of mini HQs in other places besides SF or SV.

As Cowen said, these are very smart people, they'll figure it out.

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I really think long term WFH will not be sustainable for a number of reasons that I am observing in my own life / wfh setting:

(1) It will be very difficult to train new employees and maintain company culture. It might be ok for the small minority of extremely self motivated individuals, but a lot of people need a physical setting / social interaction to get in the right mindset.

(2) Burnout can be a major problem in this setup. It is difficult for employees to separate work from life. This is compounded with a family and kids.

(3) A lot of people want to work in a social environment. If you are young and single, working from home is not all that attractive. If you are older and have a family then the flexibility may be welcome.

(4) Large projects are difficult to organize without in person interaction. Whiteboarding and discussions with others become a lot harder online and there is more friction in communication.

(5) As Tyler mentions, workers may become increasingly viewed as commodities in such an environment. This may be good for short term results, but large, innovative projects that require new thinking, techniques, and large amounts of collaboration will likely suffer.

Remote work is already sustainable. gitlab.com is valued over $1 billion and entirely remote. Solve for the equilibrium. We can't expect remote work to take over the world, but it will perhaps become an option for all sufficiently qualified candidates at tech companies. Those who prefer breathing the same air can simply opt to come into the office.

As I said above, it will be a mix not all one or the other. And the collaborative/video tech will continue to improve (as Reason alluded to above)...VR might be a game changer here.

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I'm older, but single, and i miss interacting my coworkers, but I also did not have a toxic commute or other negatives about going in to the office. If working from home, I would advise one to have a dedicated workspace that is officially The Office, and where you have some separation from the rest of the household, and which you stay out of during non-working hours. I joke about my "commute" down the stairs in the morning to the office.
There's talk about putting us on a revolving schedule when things are safer, with half in the office and half at home and switching every two weeks, which I wouldn't mind doing.

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they don’t put in extra hours or extend themselves for the benefit of co-workers.

And that is likely to be the big kicker. Why sacrifice anything for "co"-workers you have never met? What are their deadlines to you?

Extra hours at the office are often low or negative utility. We have no problem staying this with the Japanese, but somehow our dicking around at the office is different? WeWork famously made people stay late doing what exactely...

Work from home is easily the most productivity and life enhancing movement I’ve observed in my lifetime. I’ve been doing it for seven years and my wife recently got to join me and her job make it permanent. We get to spend time with kids, save money on housing and commuting, and live where we want.

...the benefits of WFH will attract smart people who want the same thing to offset the downsides. And as Anon said above in his 3rd point, there will likely be age bifurcation. Younger workers may enjoy coming in, then once they start families WFH more. But by then they will be acculturated.

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At my financial firm we’ve had a big increase in output and hours worked but I suspect that is a temporary response to an awful recession that is not long term sustainable. Ditto to whoever said WFH a couple days a week loosing its negative perception.

It's not going to be 100% WFH everywhere, but a couple days a week will become the norm, and mostly a benefit.

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There is plenty of research that long hours results in lower weekly productivity. It's possible that WFH, with fewer time serving hours in the office, is actually a boon for both productivity and work-life balance.

But Cowen is right that there are other problems related to culture, training and various personalities needing to be in person.

I can see a future where managers and younger employees spend a lot of time in the office, but senior individual contributors work mostly from home and spend more time with their families. Reducing # of commuters is a multiplicative effect. Less commuters means both fewer people wasting time on commutes and faster commutes. And never-commuters will move to places with cheaper housing, freeing up more space near tech centers. There are a lot of big wins here - too big to seeing this cat going back in the bag. You've got to remember that the main movers-and-shakers here are living in the commute and cost-of-living hellhole of SV. Even a $500K income is not enough to feel good about raising a family there.

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Why does it have to be all or nothing? Even 2 days at home and 3 at the office will have a huge effect on all sorts of things, including how far away people are prepared to commute from - therefore real estate values, amount of office space required and so on.

+1 It doesn't have to be all or nothing. 2+3/3+2 makes both sides more productive/prepared. Quality/quantity of commutes can't be over stated.

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2/3 days WFH is enough for most people to live in exurbs and drastically reduce housing costs

Not everyone's workplace is in a downtown of a big city. I currently live in a city (Baltimore), but reverse commute to a suburb (Columbia). In the past I've commuted suburb to suburb as well.

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Aren't "esprit de corps and morale" killed by women in the workplace and diversity initiatives and affirmative action?

"Esprit de corps and morale" are generated by groups of like minded men working together. They're inherently sexist and exclusionary and go against the contemporary zeitgeist.

When women enter a field in appreciable numbers, the prestige of that field declines and men leave. And when non like minded and less qualified men are promoted for the interests of diversity, esprit de corps and morale decline.

No, women and Blacks are not the reason you didn't get the promotion you wanted.

"They're inherently sexist and exclusionary and go against the contemporary zeitgeist."

I heard nowadays Blacks can even sit on the bus if the feel like that. It is end of world times.

If WFH gets sufficiently common, neither Blacks nor anyone else will have reason to sit on busses.

-dk

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Blacks may be allowed to sit anywhere on the bus, but whites have responded by eschewing the bus altogether.

I think that was the point of the whole thing. Whites fleeing to the suburbs is the goal. In the past two decades we started to see white people returning from the suburbs to urban areas, and now we have race riots again and whites are again pushing to be able to live in the suburbs. Now they'll just try to take their jobs they had in the city with them out there.

We are not having "race riots". The rioting has not been about race in the slightest, it's been mostly about smash and grab some free stuff by low income people, white and black both. But it also hasn't been all that common, unless you think "protest" and "riot" are synonyms.
The bigger question for urban life is what Covid will do to it. People who live in cities often do so for the amenities, but when those are locked down or truncated they may decide the high rents are not worth it.

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People on a team should be like-minded in that they should all want to build a business and make money. Women and minorities can be like-minded in that way. In fact, diversity is often extremely helpful to business as it gives a larger range of cultural understanding that helps in selling to a larger market as well as recruiting minority employees with strong or unique skills. Businesses are inherently self-interested and look to increase diversity because it’s good for their profits. However, the need to ensure that a team is like-minded is why many businesses will not hire people who are more interested in complaining about diversity than in building the business.

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- Supervisors have to think for more than a few seconds about what they want me to do, very uncomfortable for them,
- They can't just walk over and reel off a brain dump of what they're thinking they might want, they have to write an email which can be used as documentary evidence of what they thought they wanted, even more uncomfortable for them,
- requires more trust between supervisors and staff, I give more feedback and progress updates until they push back,
- Young people need the social interaction with other young colleagues and older hard bitten cynic boomers. Being able to collaborate with a wide range of people is a valuable skill and can only be done in person,
- good IT infrastructure is essential otherwise it just won't work,
- not being interrupted every 15 minutes is liberating, deep diving can be any time, even all day.

Why do you think collaboration cannot happen via video call and screen sharing?

I find it easier to collaborate this way than in person.

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In my last (executive) position, I sometimes handed in projects but mostly I was on a team that made big decisions. There is absolutely no way to do that remotely. If you try, the biggest mouth rules, or else the boss, realizing that she (in this case it was a she) can't get 5 people to cooperate remotely, would have had to become a dictator. Phooey. We need offices.

It's not all or nothing. There will simply be more days of WFH.

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The f'ing executives can pay for a home close to the office and keep commuting in every day. Totally irrelevant to the broader conversation.

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I am sitting in the office on the weekend with no body else here making up for the work I didn't do from home during the week. I am using this time to write a comment on a blog.

+1 for reality

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The risk of working remotely is that the scales will fall from the eyes of the toadies who work for Twitter, Facebook, and other tech companies.

What exactly are you implying?

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"Virtual tools can help organize teams, but they simply can’t replicate the intellectual frisson of “gathering the smart people” together, and this could damage performance and innovation."

It could but it could also enable the gathering of smart people online who are forced for whatever reason to be separated geographically. Stephen Hawking RIP would have had a hard time moving about the globe but imagine his impact had VR and telepresence technology been more widely distributed around the world. The brightest minds in today's more nationalist times are often stuck in places like Iran or Western China.

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Onboarding does seem to be the intractable challenge. And if the firm is growing, it's not something that can be ignored in the short term, because it's a bottleneck to growth.

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Company culture is critical. Plenty of fully-online, fully-remote companies do fine. But they knew from the start, or became so over time, that they’d be remote. They setup their communication and working habits to support remote work. They are purposeful in their execution. It takes consistent effort. Haphazard application of remote-enabling technologies is unlikely to produce great results.

Companies that start co-located, become remote due to an outside event, and then attempt to replicate their co-located work habits/culture are more likely to fail at remote work. Example: supervisors ask employees to install tracking apps to ensure they’re working. This is invasive and drives down morale. It ensures the most talented people will leave over time. This has its own domino effect on innovation and productivity. It’s a race to the bottom and nobody wins (except competitors).

The type of work is important. Not everything is going to be effective WFH. Work that depends on rapid-fire idea-sharing will suffer. Until VR technology can replace it, in-person communication is of the highest fidelity. An enormous amount of information passes between two humans in the same room without either of them saying a word. Body language transmits a lot.

In the meantime, beefing up writing skills for remote employees goes a long way. Clear, crisp language is key. If people can’t clearly transmit their idea, expect to spend lots of cycles on figuring out what everybody meant.

"An enormous amount of information passes between two humans in the same room without either of them saying a word. Body language transmits a lot."

Yup, and online meetings are even worse at this when there's more than two people. Reading a room is an important communication skill, but is difficult to do online. (And impossible if, as seems to be happening more and more frequently, people turn off their cameras and participate only via audio.)

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"The distinction between protected full-time employees and outsourced, freelance and contract workers weakens." Employers prefer H-1B visa holders (especially Indians) because these (non-)immigrants must remain with the same employer for several years for green card processing. 'Libertarian' organizations like CATO also love this visa program. It's like there never was an American Civil War.

Surely these libertarians would prefer immigrants be given green cards right away, thus removing the problem you mention.

I haven't watched a CATO video about this topic recently, but when I have they spend a lot of time endorsing this program but not much mention is given to the indentured servitude aspect of it.

I'd be more libertarian if it wasn't so often used by Chamber of Commerce and Wall Street hucksters.

I don’t know CATO’s reason for supporting H1B, but could someone support the program even if there’s an “indentured servitude aspect of it” if one believes that it’s marginally better than the alternative of no program, and increased immigration is otherwise infeasible?

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Tyler writes: “The distinction between protected full-time employees and outsourced, freelance and contract workers weakens. “

You are correct. Of course employment of H-1B visa workers does the same thing.

The top priority for immigration reform should be to offer citizenship to every person who has worked for 6 months in the USA and not been charged with a felony. This should be agreeable to the left in that it would promote equality. And as well as to those on the right interested in the welfare of natives seeking employment as H-1B would be less attractive to employers if such visa holders were suddenly able to compete for other jobs without the threat of being sent back to their country of origin. The only people who would oppose it would be the employers exploiting the visa holders and the foreign workers missing out on opportunity to work in the USA.

I'm liberal-ish on immigration, but I don't want to hand out citizenship after a mere six month tenure. However I would like to junk H-1B entirely and hand out green cards to any workers we actually do need to bring over from foreign lands.

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Two points:
1.) This wasn't a good test of working from home because workers had few claims on their time. Without t-ball practice after dinner, you may as well log on and do work for a couple of hours.

2.) If WFH becomes mandated, workers should be compensated. And, no, not having to commute isn't compensation. Your commute is your choice.

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I have to suspect that if WFH becomes a new normal, caring companies will just have to connive more ways to monitor workers (and/or their performance) in their own homes, which slimy managers can then monitor whether workers stay at home or need to come in once or twice or thrice a week.

"Lights, camera, mic--WORK!"

I think good managers will simply standout more because of this and he able to demand higher wages. Those who can’t project plan, manage their time, have constructive meetings, prioritize, and evaluate their teams performance will start to stand out as well managed teams continue to deliver.

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I haven’t found a decline in esprit de corps at all. Esprit de corps comes from running a successful business. If your business is creating cool products or services and making money, people are going to be invested in it because everyone likes to be part of a winning team, and yes that includes the financial rewards. This is also how successful countries like Singapore have created a national identity and strong social cohesion out of nothing in one generation. In many ways, work esprit de corps has actually improved because we now use video chat to talk to colleagues in other cities whereas we used to use phone calls. This trend to WFH will also be good for workers, especially if more companies move to voluntary work from home. Not only do they not have to commute if they don’t want to, but the flip side of companies being able to hire people around the world is that workers will be able to work for companies around the world. That will make it much easier for workers who want to remain in their hometowns or in other smaller cities with high quality of life to nevertheless find great jobs with leading companies that would otherwise have to restrict their hiring to the large alpha cities where most talent is clustered. It will also help young people struggling with the “two-body problem” if more work is remote so fewer people are faced with the choice of giving up their own career or their partner’s—and a lot of companies were already moving in this direction before the pandemic.

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Sounds like something someone in academia would say.

+1

TC is extremely out-of-touch here. Tech workers have been telecommuting from Russia, India, and Pakistan for 20 years or more. The idea that we should be working for "esprit de corps" instead of tangible financial remuneration is insane. The whole point of working is to make money and provide for leisuretime activities like raising a family and having a nice standard of living. Shifting away from the cultish corporate world, where everyone recites the "core values" in unison during "all-hands meetings" and toward more individualized lives where family and fun are at the center of all things is GOOD, not BAD.

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Computer programmers, sometimes organized as computer consultants, have been living these trade offs since the 1980s. So it doesn't seem such a big deal.

In my experience it can work out a lot of ways, depending on the organization of the company, the patterns of management, the workflow.

But we definitely did not reach the equilibrium that all work was piece labor. Some work at a distance was hourly, but a fair amount was salaried as well.

This triggers a memory. I had joined a company as a contract worker, and the boss came in and said "we really need you to work a lot of hours to finish this project can you do that?" He was surprised when I just said "sure!"

I think the poor guy forgot our arrangement, and he was shocked to get the bill.

By the way, college stress dreams (I've been here all semester and haven't gone to class!) got nothing on contract stress dreams (I've been working a year and haven't filed any invoices!).

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This is why hourly employees have been working shorter and shorter weeks over the last four decades while salaried employees have been working longer and longer weeks. They're the new leisure class, except their flat broke or in the hole.

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Every week I pick a theme or artist and lead into our morning meeting with a song. Another co-worker tells a lame dad joke to wrap things up. We have a definite culture built up around remote work.

We couldn't get legal to approve Discord so we are not able to use it anymore, but for the good part of 2019 our team would hang out almost all day in a voice channel and basically stopped scheduling meetings. We'd shoot the shit, talk about what we were working on, share ideas for better process or products, etc.

Where I'm going is, Tyler seems pretty much clueless and therefore his arguments make very little sense.

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True story: a friend started a new job remotely. She went two months basically ignoring one of her reports, because due to a miscommunication during on-boarding, she had no idea this person reported to her.

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When firms find that the employees can do it from home, and set up the infrastructure and work monitoring system for that, they then can substitute foreign workers for domestic workers more easily.

If you can work from home,
Could you
Or someone else
Work from India?

That time came 20 years ago.

After the pandemic, when firms reinvented the workplace and spent money to do so, this will increase.

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By the way, RP, I don't know how you can read my comment to say that this had not begun earlier. In fact, I spoke, at the request of Deloitte, on structuring foreign joint ventures, about 15 years ago, and was also contracted by Federal Legal Publications to talk, along with another partner, about this subject to a firm which had a problem joint venture in China.

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The pressure Bill suggests will indeed increase. It may take various forms, though. Working from India? Absolutely, when language and time zones are perhaps less critical. But one mark of a free economy is the multiplicity of ways in which the division of labor manifests itself. The same thing could play out, in related ways, in less expensive American cities, especially those that offer a similar quality of life to the coastal ones, where otherwise coast-bound employees may be willing to move. Chicago is the obvious example. Dallas, Salt Lake City, Tampa, and Denver also come to mind.

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If your employers learn you really can do your job from home, then they are going to learn it can be done from Mumbai, too, and at a fraction of the cost.

I worked in some mixed teams, with people in Asia or the former Soviet Union. It worked, and it was cost effective, but it was not the most efficient thing. Part of the cost is constant cultural misapprehensions. That has led to a lot of projects re-onshoring.

A good manager, like Haakon above, can manage it. Or they can spend more money for less troubles.

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Employers "learned" that decades ago at great cost. Bangalore makes sense for certain cost center projects like internal HR or accounting tools but never your main product lines.

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At this point everything that can be offshored has been-- and some things have been brought back because they didn't work out. There are significant issues with employing people with often limited language skills, different cultures and on the other side of the planet that don't exist when your employees are twenty miles up the highway.

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Tyler may be somewhat right, but what makes me skeptical is that his arguments are not strong, mostly it's presumption that people have to be together to make big things, because it was done this way before.

Which is fair, but it seems obvious to me that WFH have definite benefits: less commuting, some people do not like socializing, talent from elsewhere, flexible schedule.

Also, what about less social signaling - it should be good for overall productivity of a firm, no?

Also, social aspects of work do not go away entirely, likely they are even better for some people. See, for example, how some teenagers socialize - they rarely meet in person, but as far as I can see have strong, vibrant social lives online, in their own groups, circles, etc.

All in all, I would wager, Tyler is likely too pessimistic and takes conservative position here for some reason.

Even when they meet in person, they have their phone out, if only to text the guy next to them. "Mommy, how did people say 'hello' before iPhones?"

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Fortunately, tech firms aren't run by teenagers. And I'm not entirely sure if there will be less social signaling--that seems even more attractive virtually.

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Yeah I agree ... there are both benefits and negatives here, but this seems to be "mood affiliation" or whatever TC claims other people do... weird but it seems he's really more conservative recently?

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I feel like this blog doesn't understand how work can be done in a globally and temporally distributed fashion like they do in open source software. The Linux kernel for example is a very complex product to create and maintain but they are able to make it work using the global workforce wherever they are. Expensive real estate isn't needed. Neither are offices or managers/supervisors or overpaid CXOs. In fact most contributors have never seen each other face to face let alone be in the same room together. It's time to rethink the nature of work this century.

> The Linux kernel for example is a very complex product to create and maintain but they are able to make it work using the global workforce wherever they are

The world has tried open source laptops and phones. it doesn't work very well. Building physical products requires a lot of really boring work when validating the product. And it's really hard to find people in open source to do the mundane and boring work that comes with making physical products.

If you want to make a new file system, you'll have plenty of people sign up. If you need someone to write software to test the new file system, few will sign up. With physical products, it's even worse. Who will sign up to test the hinge on the open source laptop? Open and close it thousands of times, in environments with varying levels of particulate matter in the air? Who has the equipment at home to do these things?

Someone from 2002 called, and wants their bad prediction back.

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Building physical products is the easiest thing to build remotely. Isn't this the corporate strategy of virtually every consumer product company in the US from Apple to GE to the products lining your local Walmart?

Well done.

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By the way, in terms of hardware, the OSHWA was a bit fringe when founded, but motoring on .. with 950 certified projects.

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I have to strenuously disagree with this column. Working from home makes for healthier, better-ordered lifestyles for workers, where advancement is likely to be based much more on sheer results than on organizational politicking. The key factor in advancement under the new regime is your work product, not whether you stick around at the firm happy hours until everyone is soused and starts to bond. Essentially, it’s a shift of the locus of social community away from work and toward family and neighborhood. These latter communities should be our primary communities, with work communities as secondary communities. Telework facilitates this reordering of priorities. And that makes for healthier people. I strongly suspect that overall productivity will be the same or greater—people will do more with less. Not to mention, our fraying social fabric has a lot to do with our splintering families and local communities.

The work-community-before-everything-else mentality has not served us well. It’s the social equivalent of our nationally abysmal diet and exercise (also a product of the overwork culture). To say nothing of the sheer deadweight loss of commuting (time and environmental) and extractive landlords.

Sure, we may get fewer DoorDashs and Instacarts, but as Tyler’s recent links to the unproductive entrepreneurial economy (and remember pizza arbitrage?) indicate, we’re not actually losing much there. Most successful startups aren’t the glitzy Silicon Valley social media companies, they’re boring companies started by 45-year-olds who have industry experience and marginally improve something in their area of expertise.

So long live the work from home lifestyle, and may our families and communities recover as we wake from our work-as-the-meaning-of-life religion.

Isn't there a contradiction here? Sheer results means if you work 51 hours a week at home, you have an advantage over the lazy schmuck working 50, who may not in fact get to stay in the firm at all. In the longer term, how does that lead to better-ordered lifestyles?

I can see two tracks developing:

--Track 1. The social-signalling, performative track, for those who need to demonstrate, through words and attitude, a capacity for "leadership" inside an organization.

--Track 2. The doer track, where you build things and get stuff done.

Track 1 generally reports to the office. Track 2 generally works remotely. Today, the 45-year-old founders who marginally improve some aspect of the industry come from today's work-from-the-office version of Track 2.

Over time, inside organizations, I'd expect Track 2 to gain steam but still hit speed bumps of information costs laid down by Track 1. The degree to which Track 2 eventually triumphs will depend, in part, on at least two things:

1) Whether the culture adopts the adage that "the truth is seen, rarely heard."

2) Whether products and services of the day--including marginal improvements to some sliced-off aspect of the industry--lend themselves to the ability of an individual (or a few individuals) to learn some "full-stack" mode of production.

How high this full stack is will depend on whether complementary inputs can be procured, cost-competitively, separately in the market rather than inside an integrated firm. If they can generally be procured in the market, the stack will be low, helping Track 2. If they can't, the stack will be high and need to be integrated inside a larger organization, helping Track 1.

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I don't think so. When working remote, value is assessed via outputs, not inputs. Managers don't see their employees, so they only have output to go on. In an office environment, they see inputs too -- time spent at the office being a major one. At the office, Joe who "puts in really long hours" is rewarded to some degree for his inefficient inputs.

That's to say nothing of the real thrust of my original point, which is that factors totally unrelated to output often materially affect advancement in the social environment of the firm, especially in today's US, where everyone puts in longer hours (more than similarly productive countries, by the way) because there isn't much real, fulfilling community outside of work. Hence the after hours socializing, unproductive during-hours socializing, and other social maneuvering that serves the interests of individuals within the firm but not the firm as a whole.

Exactly! You make a similar point in a different way. Man is a political animal, as well as an economic one. Inside a firm, non-economic, political factors--sounding smart, putting in long hours, having the right social graces--play a huge role in advancing in a zero-sum tournament environment, especially when the underlying job skills aren't rare or demanding. And most jobs are intentionally kept undemanding because for a firm to have longevity, employees need to be kept replaceable.

If, however, in this environment, the 45-year-old entrepreneurial corporate manager can find a niche where her economic output outside the firm exceeds the combination of political input and economic output inside a firm, then there is an opportunity to start a niche firm marginally improving some aspect of the industry. In this, one large consideration will be the cost of transacting in the market, as a company owner, versus the cost of transacting (including politically "transacting") inside the firm, as an employee.

One strange consequence of this is that to the degree that these entrepreneurs succeed, life inside the corporate environment will even more political, just in the way you describe. Because for real, business-altering questions, the large corporation will increasingly contract out the niche experts, some of whom may even previously worked for the company. The result? An increased importance, inside the firm, of the political inputs you mention. After all, the primary economic outputs are delivered by outside consultants and lawyers, leaving employees--including executives--in a secondary position. In other words, you end up with an empty, ghost company to be captured by empty-suit executives rather than a thick, richly productive one run by talented ones.

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A lot of tech people in comments saying they already work remotely so what's the big deal, but they forget they self-selected into the most introverted and socially aversive trade, which itself has a lot of process-piece-implementation or problem-solving, rather than understanding what a lot of human stakeholders in "a room" may want.

In my experience, executives' work is done as remotely as anyone's. In the old days, the human stakeholders were often strewn around the country, requiring frequent executive travel. The human stakeholders are still strewn around the country, but for the past 10 years or more, they've been handled, for the most part, remotely via phone and incessant email (often used as a chat app).

Personally, I think most business trips, in-person meetings and, now, Zoom or phone calls, are used to signal status. "My presence is demanded!" the implication goes. So you call your own meeting, or have someone else call it on your behalf, to remind participants and onlookers of your own importance. It's possible that the pro-wrestling aspect of this is needed to maintain organizational structure. Some folks need to be reminded of who's in charge. It's also possible that it undermines organizational structure. Who can stand to be unnecessarily reminded of who's in charge, especially when the reminding requires one to witness fake headlocks and other "holds"?

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It's amazing what can happen when interesting combinations of highly motivated people get together to work on stuff. Ditto for  what can happen when everyone in an organization can instantly get the direction, feedback and other resources they need to perform at a high level.  Physical proximity is a plus but it is hardly a requirement and it is not a substitute for a strong culture which is the ultimate catalyst for the frisson Tyler worries will be lost.

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If "esprit de corps and morale" mattered so much to US labor then why did big business send their jobs to China?

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Another point. Physical offices are a great tax dodge. You can write things off as "expenses" which would otherwise be taxed at the rate of labour income. Most national governments have been limiting this for obvious quantifiable perks like meals and company cars, but not the costs that arise from simply being anywhere for dozens of hours a week like heat, light, maybe Wi-Fi, wear and tear...

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I work at a large institution that allows me to WFH. I have also been renting a semiprivate space in a coworking office, $350/month. I (before COVID) would drop my kids off at school, then go to my coworkers office and spend the day working there.

It felt sort of like corporate culture, like really being at work, which made me especially productive. A major upside is none of the people there actually worked with me, so i was rarely bothered. Sometimes I scheduled in-person meetings in their conference rooms. This saved me a much longer commute to my "real" office, created the work/home separation my family needs, and was generally superior in every way.

Big companies could go this route and just rent small, local satellite offices for a handful of employees, allowing them to hire anywhere with short commutes. There is just absolutely no reason why I need to be colocated with all 10,000 of my colleagues.

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When the Supreme Court went to work-from-home for oral arguments, I noticed that two things changed:

1: Oral arguments on a normal case, previously normed as an hour , went to 1:15 or 1:20.

2: Justice Thomas, previously famous for not saying anything for decades during oral arguments, now asks about as many questions as any other justice.

-dk

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The "intellectual frisson" thing is over-rated. Research shows that cube farms make people hunker down and avoid their co-workers. There's nothing better for productivity than a private office with a door that closes.

The corporate morale problem is the bosses not having a clue about their business and their interests and those of their employees being seriously misaligned. That leads to sloganeering, jargon and demands for empty face time.

This is, of course, a class issue. Most poorly paid employees cannot work from home.

(Now I'm imagining a meat packing plant trying to make WFH work. A truck full of cows pulls up in front of a the trailer shared by a dozen meat cutters who are waiting outside with aprons, masks, large knives and plastic bags. There's a large, metal sided, ice filled shipping container. One guy with a stick drives the cows over to the work area with its repurposed jungle gym. The camera tastefully cuts away, and we see a pile of steaks and roasts landing on the ice. As in the old Latin American corn crop story, the Virgin Mary is flirting to distract the USDA inspector while her son sits on the fence with his shotgun watching out for the immigration squad.)

Intellectual frisson, my ass.

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Tyler wrote:
> There is some evidence that when employees work at a distance, they don’t put in extra hours or extend themselves for the benefit of co-workers. That probably means a better work-life balance for many people, but perhaps also inferior performance from a lot of companies over the longer haul.

The said evidence in the linked paper is sourced from here: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0018726709104543. The authors wrote:
> telecommuters who are encouraged to create boundaries between work and family were less likely to extend themselves in crunch times or after hours to help their colleagues

This paper is from 2009, which is ancient history when it comes to considering the modern possibilities for remote work (also, the paper was mostly trying to compare local versus remote workers within the same firms, rather than considering the wide adoption of remote work). Additionally, the study finds that remote workers were both more productive and more satisfied with their work - contrary to Tyler's claim about potentially inferior performance.

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A couple years ago in San Francisco I spent a lot of time around mid Market street, across the street from Twitter. Coffee shops were filled with their employees. Virtually (can I still use this word?) all were under 30, which is typical for the social media industry. I think fifty year old academics have a somewhat different view of 'work from home' than do young techies, who still wants to hang out and flirt. In SF, I get the feeling the cafes provide an opportunity to be with the people you want to be with and avoid those you don't. A recent grad from the Midwest might work from Starbucks because its familiar and people there seem less edgy, while a gay man can work from a bistro off Castro. Working remotely for those who don't yet have a family will lead to even more specific group identities, which is something you see in SF, which is the most Balkanized place I know, outside the Balkans anyway.

Also, I think Tyler is kidding himself when he extols online learning. As someone working in online ed, I can assure you it is a great force multiplier, great for making the smart smarter, which is not at all the problem facing our species. For people seeking information, it is a godsend. For young people, a complete disaster. Most never want their camera on. How many adolescents in brick and mortar high schools would choose a cloak of invisibility if they could?

Tyler the Infovore loves online teaching because he loves information. Most people don't. They just want to find a group to have high status in and maybe find a mate. The information they want is the sort that will make those things easier. BTW I'm told the Unabomber manifesto is moving around in some tech circles rather like samizdat once did behind the Iron Curtain. Whether this will results in real conflict or just an annual Transhumans vs. Luddites softball game is hard to say.

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Professor Cowen,

As a tech worker, I disagree. There will be winners and losers in this new world, but the sheer volume of winners all over they country have a quality above what tech metros have hitherto provided.

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For all such claims on remote work from remote shores, US co outsourcing to individuals in Bangalore, Shangai, Manila or Addis Ababa etc. there is one little reality called jurisdiction and the legal entanglments.

Say you work on Product ABCD for XYZ Inc. headquartered in Fresno. And your workforce is spread around the world (keeping to software for now). Each person is in a different jurisdiction and the patent/IP for ABCD is now in its own little hell hole I think. You can do with contracting with each person/group of persons etc. but then each such contract would have to be jurisdiction specific and who knows what patent/IP laws are in each jurisdiction?

Are you willing to say your patent/IP would be worth the paper it is printed on for a set of folks that work out of Shenzen or Shangai (or) is it more realistic that that knowledge is appropriated by local laws/national interest?

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So employers cost shift the office space onto employees the savings of which will not be passed onto employees in almost all cases.

Value of office space drops dramitically seriously impacting property tax levels at the municipal level resu,ting in less services being available.

And speaking from my last thirty years experience as IT type with multinational firms once you're no longer required to be in the office is there any point in really having you in the country?

Just as easy to pay someone a fraction of your wage overseas to do the accounting or whatnot.

Goodbye pettite bourgeoisie. We hardly lknew you.

The savings from not commuting are pretty substantial. I've gone from weekly fill-ups to monthly fill-ups.

Thimk that will make up for CEOs cutting your salary because where you live is cheaper?

https://deadline.com/2020/05/facebook-workers-can-work-remote-with-salary-cut-mark-zuckerberg-1202941243/

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Re: There is some evidence that when employees work at a distance, they don’t put in extra hours or extend themselves for the benefit of co-workers. That probably means a better work-life balance for many people, but perhaps also inferior performance from a lot of companies over the longer haul.

Or it means there's less useless face time fakery, and less time wasting spent in water cooler chit-chat with coworkers. One of the not-so-hidden truths of many jobs today is they can be done in less than 40 hours a week apart from the occasional crunch time, but since that 40 hour a week workweek is mandatory people find non-productive ways to fill up the time, like commenting on blogs.

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I don't think it will be 100% office or 100% WFH. I think we will see a moderate increase in telecommuting. I still think people will go into the office, but maybe not quite as much. This would be a hybrid approach, with the benefits of social interaction in the office and the benefits of working from home.

There is another reason why companies may want employees to return to the office: the sunk cost fallacy. Many of these companies have invested lots of money in physical office space. While much of this money is sunk and shouldn't be considered in a decision to bring employees back to the office, I can see situations where managers say "we have all this great physical space that we already paid lots of money for, let's have folks back in the office".

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