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Working from home is good for business
As well as for people and community
This post is one is a series about community, in which we take a look at ways in which we can be more than workers or consumers, and how we can reclaim civil society. In this light, we’ll take a look at what we’ve gained as a society from working from home, and what we might lose in the push to get people back to the office.
Working from home has brought many people into the workplace who had no place there before. It has helped the workplace become more diverse.
There are some obvious examples. Those with other responsibilities, such as parents or care givers, find time away from home challenging and need some flexibility to arrange their work hours around other duties. Those with mobility challenges or chronic health conditions can find commuting difficult, while others may feel unsafe crossing parking lots or using public transportation.
Some diversity is less obvious. There are many who find the office environment itself challenging. The modern corporate office is designed by and for people who, well, thrive in the modern corporate office. It’s a culture that favors people with an extrovert personality, often younger, male, able-bodied, and taller. Working from home levels the playing field, in some ways literally. Everyone's the same height on Zoom! It's harder, although alas not impossible, to bully or harass someone, sexually or otherwise, remotely. And when you work from home, no one knows which bathroom you use.
Many with neurodivergent personalities or who are involved in detailed or creative work find it hard to concentrate amidst the background noise of an open plan office or cubicle farm. They can be found at their desks wearing noise cancelling headphones and communicating with the next cubicle via Slack. They are more productive and creative working from home at home than trying to work from home at the office!
Employers benefit from diversity too. A more inclusive workforce brings a broader range of skills and perspectives to everything from product design to customer service and helps their offerings work better for everyone.
Before COVID, downtown office culture companies were offering everything from free breakfasts to rest pods to encourage people to spend all their waking hours at work. Home for many was a studio apartment in a five over one - named for a style of residential construction originating in the Western USA with five floors of wood over one floor of concrete. With a high density per square mile, no or limited parking, limited space for entertainment, and no public open space, tenants were a captive audience for the overpriced gyms, bars, and restaurants in the ground floors.
When COVID shuttered the offices and the places of entertainment, the shallow roots of that lifestyle became exposed. Many struggling to work in these tiny apartments took the opportunity to move out of the city for more fully diverse communities where they could build a richer social life and put down some real roots.
In the drive to save the downtown economy, it's worth asking: whose economy are we trying to save?
The Millennial, the Gen-Xer, and the self-employed
A millennial of my acquaintance was one who left the city. In her new home, she’s been able to go bikepacking, make and sell her art, and even join an improv group! For her thirtieth birthday, she’s throwing herself a prom, with forty guests of diverse ages, none of whom are from work.
A Gen-Xer of my acquaintance lives in a thriving city neighborhood. Working from home allows her time to fully participate in neighborhood activities and continue working away from home on extended trips to visit family.
OK, the self-employed is me. I might be a little biased. I left Mad Men corporate life in 1990 and have worked mostly from home ever since. Leaving the world of ten-hour days and two-hour commutes allowed me time with ailing parents when it was needed and many hours of volunteering alongside building businesses.
Our rural community has been dealing for years with an aging population and an increasing number of second homes. An influx of younger refugees from city life is rejuvenating, literally, our schools and our community. The recent passage of our district pool bond, and, fingers crossed, a school bond was certainly helped by the number of parents with school-age children.
We’re starting to see younger people involved in group activities, community organizations and even local politics.
A window of opportunity
The last few years have shown us that we don’t need to do our office work in a vast central office complex. It can be done at home, in co-working spaces, or perhaps in smaller rural and suburban hubs, so that people can work nearer to where they live. Here in the US, zoning restrictions need to be revised to allow that to happen, and we’ll need to continue to invest in high-speed internet in rural areas.
The tiny apartments for cubicle dwellers can be repurposed for the unhoused population, or as pieds-à-terre for the exurbanites in need of a city break.
There's a window of opportunity to learn from working from home and design a work culture that works better for all of us, allowing more people to participate in the workforce while giving us space and time to live richer lives more engaged in community. Whether we succeed depends on who gets to do the designing.
I’d love to hear:
Do you work from home?
What do you miss about the office?
How are you spending the time you save?
If you’re interested in reading more about work culture, I highly recommend the Substack publicationsby on the future of work, and by on work culture (and much more!)