Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Trillion dollar question: will workers share the savings from remote working?

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Remember Tim Ferriss’ best-selling advice book The 4 hour work week about 10 years ago? Ferriss tried to argue that people would be much happier if they retired from corporate life, moved to less stressful places, and worked a lot less.

Awesome title aside, it probably wasn’t a plan for everyone, or even most people. But I thought about Ferriss underlying themes because the pandemic has caused assumptions about where and how we work. Ferriss was ahead of the curve in highlighting the benefits of telecommuting, automating routine tasks, living a mobile lifestyle, and having fewer or no meetings.

Super techie Tom Evslin was blogging on the future of work lately too. It’s not quite the 4 hour work week. Instead, Evslin landed on 25 hours, or 50 hours for a couple, as just as productive as the old 40-hour workweek at the office. A lot of office time has been wasted kibitzing, surfing the web, unnecessary meetings and trips, and traveling, he notes. Working from home allowed people to adjust to all of the errands, appointments, and childrearing chores that became nearly impossible when stuck at the desk.

However, not everyone in the economy can benefit from this change:

“A danger in this utopian future of the WFH is that it widens the gap between those who can work from home and those who cannot – a category that includes the most essential workers,” he writes. “There must be higher hourly wages for those who have to work away from home.”

On the same wavelength, we did a test at Fortune by Dropbox CEO Drew Houston Tuesday. A Dropbox study confirmed Evslin’s theory, finding that knowledge workers typically wasted 28% of the day in the office due to distractions. At home, however, 36% of workers felt more focused. Reducing these distractions could improve productivity by $ 1.2 trillion. Houston used the results to overhaul Dropbox’s entire work structure, encouraging remote work for focused tasks and office work for collaboration.

“The workers said they could concentrate better at home than before,” he wrote. “But they also feel disconnected and say it’s more difficult to start new projects with multiple remote collaborators. Distributed Work allows us to redefine “the workplace” to mean “wherever work takes place” and get the best of both worlds. “

Ironically, the day after the Houston essay was published, the Houston company executed one of the old-fashioned and less desirable ways to become more productive: He laid off 315 people, or more than 10% of its workforce. “Our Virtual First policy means we need fewer resources to support our office environment, so we’re reducing that investment and redeploying those resources,” Houston wrote in a note to employees.

There is a infamous and quite depressing graphic you’ve probably already seen the productivity gains in the United States over the past 70 years compared to average wages. Since the 1970s, productivity has risen sharply while wages have stagnated, breaking the earlier trend when they increased in unison.

The same battle is playing out with the switch to remote work. There will be huge cost savings in real estate and overhead for businesses, massive job losses for the micro-economies that served office workers, and giant investments needed in new technology to equip businesses. houses. How the fruits of change are distributed will be a key question for companies and workers for years to come.

Fortune will be closed Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr Day. The datasheet will be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com



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