Working from home – the next revolution, now happening

Summary: Industrial revolutions are not one big event. They are many incremental changes with giant effects. Wars and pandemics often accelerate them, changing society unexpectedly with fantastic speed. The shift to working at home is one such change, forced by COVID-19 – changing everything.

There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.
— Paraphrase from Marx’s letter to Engels, 9 April 1863.

Male fantasy image of a woman working at home.

Happy woman working From Home - AdobeStock-224435267
By Jacob Lund, AdobeStock-224435267.

A crisis can spark a jump in a society’s evolution. America after WWII was drastically different than before it. Technology leaped forward, the shift of population and vitality to the West coast accomplished in a few years what might have taken a decade otherwise. The power and reach of the Federal government expanded to a revolutionary degree. Social patterns also changed, as millions of people left their homes to travel across the nation or the world – and millions of women went from homemakers to industrial workers. The effects of these changes took decades to fully play out, but were irreversibly set in motion by WWII.

COVID-19 might have some similar, albeit smaller, effects. The economic and political changes can only be guessed at now. But one is big, with effects gigantic if as yet unseen: the shift of work back to homes. The shift to telecommuting was an obvious and early prediction after the popularization of the Intenet. It began to accelerate after 2004 – from small numbers (graph from a Fed study). COVID-19 has taken this trend and shifted it to warp speed.

Graph of Employees Working From Home

Workers like it

“I think this is a watershed moment in terms of wider acceptance and implementation of work-from-home. Employees that have tasted the benefits of more freedom and autonomy are going be hard-pressed to let it go.”
— Philippe Weiss, president of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, a Chicago-based workplace training firm. From Chicago Tribune.

Gallup Research found that in 2016 43% of workers sometimes worked “remotely” (not necessarily from home). Their 2014 survey found that 76% of workers said that the ability to work remotely was a positive development. Their 2020 report found that a large fraction of workers preferred remote working – the more the worked remotely, the better they liked it. Less time and expense commuting. Less time preparing for work. Less need for a work wardrobe. Often (not always) a better work environment – and sometimes, using better technology.

The benefits to businesses will be immense

Improved productivity, happier workers, fewer absences are benefits businesses immediately report when shifting employees to at home work. But this change is a gift that keeps giving. Employees usually pay for their own IT equipment, repairs, and communications. The increasing burden of monitoring workers’ interactions – the cost and time spent in annual training, the managers’ time spent, the big HR staff, the liability insurance, the bills – are reduced, melting like last year’s snow.

Eventually, businesses will need less square footage. That means less expense for rent, taxes, maintenance, and insurance. The prospect of bigger profits at each step on the road will be an irresistible inducement for businesses.

There will be casualties

Those benefits to workers and businesses mean fewer jobs. That picture of a happy woman working at home is a fantasy. She’ll be in jeans and a t-shirt. Her budget for cosmetics, nice clothes, and hair products will be slashed. The people who sold her lunch, the janitors, the painters – many of these will be unemployed. That is an inevitable side effect of increasing national productivity. In the past, new jobs were eventually created to replace those lost. But that is not a law of nature. As discussed in other posts, this industrial revolution might be like the Horse Revolution. Their jobs were lost, without new ones being created for the unemployed horses.

Getting there will not be easy

Niagara Falls in 1904. Every factory with its own hydropower! It wasn’t ideal.

Niagara Falls in 1904

Industrial revolutions introduce new technology and methods that can drastically boost productivity. But it does not happen immediately. It takes time to develop new ways to make the most of these innovations. At first, they are seen as news ways to continue the old ways: artificial writing (the printing press), the horseless carriage and iron horse, the wireless telegraph (radio), glass teletype (early computer terminals). Only when people break free from old models can the full potential of innovations flourish.

The psychology of working from home requires changes by both managers and employees. Managers fear losing control and an inability to build team spirit. Employees lose the comaradary of work and must develop self-discipline. New e-tools monitor productivity and allow remote interactions. None of this comes quickly or easily. The Chicago Tribune describes how companies are adapting, such as this.

“That’s been a sea change for managers,” {Weiss} said. “Manager myths are falling by the wayside because their people have had to come front and center.” Weiss said Seyfarth at Work has been getting a lot more training requests recently on how to supervise remote employees, which requires a different approach than when they are sitting in a nearby cubicle or when casual conversations can be had en route to the elevators. Managers must set clearer expectations, offer more frequent praise and have more purposeful check-ins on progress when their workers are remote, he said.”

This article in The Atlantic also describes these challenges.

Bigger changes lie ahead

As businesses concentrate into giant mega-corps located in a few regions, the rest of America empties out while living expenses skyrocket for workers. They live in areas like NY City and the San Francisco Bay Area where everyting is more expensive. And housing prices are high and climbing. A shift to work at home can break this emprisonment, allowing people to work in nicer and cheaper areas. It might be the shift to suburbs after WWII but on a different scale.

Our social lives also will change. As America’s intermediate institutions – such as churches, fraternal organizations, and social clubs – have faded, work remains the major focus of many people’s lives. Where they have personal contact and meet people of other kinds and classes. That goes away when working from home. Perhaps the next generation will have a large fraction of people who work and play remotely from other people, as science fiction author Isaac Asimov described in his 1956 novel The Naked Sun.

These and other wonders await us in the 21st century as a new industrial revolution unfolds. See my posts about it.

For More Information

Ideas! For some shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon. Also, see a powerful and disturbing story about “Birth of a Man of Steel …for the Soviet Union.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about singularities, about robots, how the 3rd industrial revolution has begun, and especially see these…

  1. The robots are coming, bringing hope of a better future.
  2. How Robots & Algorithms Are Taking Over.
  3. Tech creates a social revolution with unthinkable impacts that we prefer not to see — About sexbots.
  4. Potentially horrific effects of drugs and machines making people smarter & stronger.
  5. The fast rise and fall of two industries show the coming singularity. Let’s prepare now.
  6. Films show us how smart machines will reshape the world.
  7. Machines take another big step to superintelligence.
  8. Prepare for the next singularity. It will change everything.
  9. Let’s prepare now for the job apocalypse.

One of the most interesting books about our future

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
Available at Amazon.

 The Singularity Is Near:
When Humans Transcend Biology
(2005).

By Ray Kurzweil. See his website.

From the publisher …

“At the onset of the twenty-first century, humanity stands on the verge of the most transforming and the most thrilling period in its history. It will be an era in which the very nature of what it means to be human will be both enriched and challenged, as our species breaks the shackles of its genetic legacy and achieves inconceivable heights of intelligence, material progress, and longevity.

“For over three decades, the great inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil has been one of the most respected and provocative advocates of the role of technology in our future. In his classic The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, he presented the daring argument that with the ever-accelerating rate of technological change, computers would rival the full range of human intelligence at its best. Now, in The Singularity Is Near, he examines the next step in this inexorable evolutionary process: the union of human and machine, in which the knowledge and skills embedded in our brains will be combined with the vastly greater capacity, speed, and knowledge-sharing ability of our own creations.

“That merging is the essence of the Singularity, an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today – the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity. In this new world, there will be no clear distinction between human and machine, real reality and virtual reality. We will be able to assume different bodies and take on a range of personae at will. In practical terms, human aging and illness will be reversed; pollution will be stopped; world hunger and poverty will be solved. Nanotechnology will make it possible to create virtually any physical product using inexpensive information processes and will ultimately turn even death into a soluble problem.

“While the social and philosophical ramifications of these changes will be profound, and the threats they pose considerable, The Singularity Is Near maintains a radically optimistic view of the future course of human development. As such, it offers a view of the coming age that is both a dramatic culmination of centuries of technological ingenuity and a genuinely inspiring vision of our ultimate destiny.”

14 thoughts on “Working from home – the next revolution, now happening”

  1. Great article, Larry. I’m currently working for a company that has been ahead of the curve on this for years. I consider it to be a mixed blessing at best.

    The single biggest issue, which is mentioned in the Derek Thompson article from the Atlantic, is that the company has continually had communication problems. One of my coworkers was a Communications major in college and he mentioned that 70% of communication is non-verbal but very few people are willing to turn on their laptop cameras when working from home.

    There are good reasons for not wanting to turn on the camera but I’ve found, just from the last couple of months of working for this company that meetings where people can’t see each other are less than half as productive as meetings where they can see each other.

    Another major reason for the lack of productivity is the urge to “multi-task” (aka “attend a meeting online and ignore it while you get other stuff done”). The odd thing is that people are both frustrated and proud of multi-tasking. They keep needing to be brought up to speed about the conversation thread when you ask them a question and they don’t always notice that they’ve been assigned tasks (some of which are critical) but they feel like they are getting so much done and have so much freedom.

    Then there’s the barking dog, crying child, etc. issues…

    All of the above can be overcome but I will be very interested when reliable studies of this coronavirus-driven experiment are published, which will happen at least a year from now.

    The what worked, what didn’t, and why, are my current biggest interests.

      1. Rando: “Is there any such thing as a ‘productive’ meeting? I for one am looking forward to the end of meeting culture.”

        Right now I’m a consultant working in a medium-large company that is trying to completely change how it does its business. The current situation is so bad that management is expecting a minimum of a 300% improvement in productivity. My project manager expects a minimum of 500% improvement.

        You’re probably thinking to yourself that I’m either inflating the numbers or the company is about to go out of business. It appears to be the second issue although I’ve not seen the books so I couldn’t say that with any degree of accuracy.

        The company was originally formed by combining 34 independent businesses, that had been purchased at about the same time, into a single business unit without any planning as to how all these different companies into a single computer system so they use roughly 147 different software packages to do the job that one system normally does.

        To make matters worse, most of the systems don’t share data and most employees have to enter the same data into several different systems every day. Heaven help them if they make a mistake and don’t catch it quickly…

        So while I understand your comment in the general context, this is probably the exception that proves the rule.

      2. randolorin,

        I’ve been working for corps for 40 years. Good managers run good meetings. They are a vital resource. Like any tool, they have to be used competently.

      3. Larry: “Good managers run good meetings. They are a vital resource. Like any tool, they have to be used competently.”

        Wish I’d said that.

  2. Hi Larry,

    In my experience with working for an online company, I noticed that many of my co-workers prefer working from a shared workspace – i.e. an office they share with people from other companies, by renting a desk – than from home. They do this so they can socialize with other people. These shared workspaces have been popping up all over the country. Perhaps this will limit the loss of supporting jobs (janitors, tech support, catering), so you shift from working in the office space the company provides, to working in the office space you like / can afford. Note that the company provides a fixed subsidy for IT tools and co-working space.

    The environment in these shared workspaces is interesting, in the sense that your co-workers are not from the same company, but are probably your neighbors (as people choose workspaces close to home). Maybe this can improve community ties that long commutes have broken.

    Even if you work from home (my case), you might want to go out more and see other people, having lunch at a local cafe, shopping at local markets etc. For me, this led me to know my neighborhood better and to make more ties with people I would not have met before, when I spent 2 hours commuting each day. But it also means that the support jobs (catering etc) still exist, but now linked with local businesses.

    Also as you said, people working remotely can live in cheaper places. In my country, this often means moving to small inland towns. So, the dispersal of workers might also mean bringing money and energy to revitalize sleepy towns. This was already happening in my country, as workers could not afford the soaring rents in the main cities (due to tourism…) and companies were forced to choose between increasing salaries or accepting remote work. I imagine that COVID will accelerate this trend, as people might want to live in less crowded places, and especially avoid rush hour in public transport.

    By the way, the current COVID lockdown might also be improving community ties in my neighborhood, since now most people only shop at walking distance from home, so we get to know (and support) local business.

  3. John F Pittman

    One thing my children are doing that may become common is holding a voice meeting first thing in the morning, then a visual and voice in the afternoon. In the morning, the discussion is what to do during the day. The afternoon is what was accomplished and what the needs are for the next morning.

    This way no one needs looking good until the afternoon. So, another addition before the lockdown was a casual lunch to have a pre-meeting before the afternoon meeting for those who could make it. Often two or three coworkers making plans over lunch. They started voice calls during lunch with the lockdown.

    The management technique used was specific instructions using procedures that are document controlled, so that each would have the latest procedure and discuss.

  4. The biggest change will be that companies will realize many of these jobs are not necessary, that for a lot of employees who can work from home, all they are doing when at work is make work for each other. As this realization spreads and is acted on it will make massive changes not just in the workplace, but in society.

    One would like to hope that something similar might happen in the health and public sectors, that once the procedures have been simplified and pruned, they will stay that way.

    Mancur Olson is essential reading on this, at a national level.

  5. Duncan Kinder

    As people move to less expensive, rural areas, this increase the need for rural broadband, which can be difficult to obtain in many areas.

      1. Duncan Kinder

        Yes, something like the REA should be done.

        However, there is this distinction:

        “Rural broadband in 2017 might sound similar to the mission of providing electricity for rural America in 1937. But an NRECA Board leader says it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison.

        “When we started 80 years ago, we were investing in poles and wires and transformers that had a very long shelf life. We’ve got some of that equipment still on our systems,” NRECA Vice President Curtis Wynn said Sept. 13 at the Senate Democratic Rural Summit.

        “With telecommunications, this is a completely different story. The shelf life for 5G—we don’t know if it’s going to be five years, three years, or what the case may be,” said Wynn.”
        https://www.electric.coop/rural-broadband-isnt-like-1930s-electrification/

      2. Duncan,

        This isn’t my field. But the costs of building a wireless system seem to this amateur to be a tiny tiny fraction of running those wires and poles vast distances to individual homes.

        I did a fast google search (not actual knowledge, but FYI) and everything I found said that this kind of stuff has an expected service life of ten years. There will be big consequences if it lasts only 3. Speculation that it might last only 3 years seems pretty weird.

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