Remote Work Can Heal America
The Op-Ed The NYT Wouldn't Publish
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This is a special feature: An op-ed initially penned for the New York Times. Sadly, they passed on publishing it. So I’m publishing it here, for you, today.
It’s not the usual format you’re used to with Remotely Inclined, but I think it’s worth the read.
Twitter announced that it’s going to allow employees to work from home ‘forever’ and the world went wild. With one announcement, the multi-billion dollar corporation became a new catalyst for a movement that’s been over a decade in the making.
Giving deference to pioneers in this space like Basecamp and Buffer is a must, but Twitter’s move signalled a permission, of sorts, to major companies that going remote is a viable option. As one of the most visible and well-known business leaders in the country, Jack Dorsey’s announcement of permanent remote work is a massive signal that other big companies can go remote, too. And that has the power to heal America.
When people can work from anywhere, it begins to open questions about living anywhere. People have long lamented the unaffordability of major hub cities like San Francisco and New York City. With remote work, those issues now have a legitimate alternative. But while the mobility aspect of remote work is perhaps the best-known argument, it’s a concept steeped in privilege. To say that burnt out, high-earning city dwellers can just descend upon small towns and live an idyllic lifestyle is barely half the story.
Remote work’s real power rests not with wealthy coastal folks moving to cheaper cities, but with its ability to lift people across the country up and give them access to new jobs. It brings a democratization of opportunity that has the potential to create the cities we need yet again - to welcome all Americans back into the economic opportunity of America.
Being able to work anywhere on the internet is not just for coders and consultants anymore, but for all kinds of jobs. Medium and low skill jobs, including data entry, customer support, and virtual office management (think: buying Zoom subscriptions instead of printer ink) are exploding - there are thousands of remote job openings for all skill levels and most job types, even as America faces unprecedented unemployment.
This shift represents mobility opportunities for people shut out of the last economic boom. Instead of gains going solely to the coasts or to specific groups of people, businesses going remote have distributed the opportunity significantly further across America. No longer will you be forced to move to a new city for the sake of a job. The remote work movement has shortened everyone’s commute to a desk in your home, if you want it, or a cafe coworking space in your town, if you need a little distance.
A big impediment to job mobility - and something that kept many working class folks out of high-potential career paths - is the concept of ‘professionalism.’ If you don’t dress like an office worker, you are far less likely to get an office job. The problem is that those clothes cost money - money that many working class folks don’t have to spend in the first place.
Remote work breaks the performative nature of work, instead putting focus on your skills and how you can deliver value. While some candidates may face issues around access to technology in the first place, in many cases remote hiring can be done over the phone. From there, many companies supply employees with laptops and other necessary technologies for the job.
Remote work also brings labor back into the home, which means there is far less of a trade-off between care and work. Single mothers with access to legitimate remote jobs will no longer have to choose between working just to pay for childcare or not working and staying at home with children. Any person who needs to support a family member can do so while balancing a remote job - something they had to do anyway when commuting to work, but was made significantly harder or more expensive because they had to leave their homes.
People with disabilities, long excluded from the workforce in various ways, are now more able than ever to secure employment they are qualified for without having to navigate a world built to exclude them. Working from home, people who use wheelchairs don’t have to worry about custom transit solutions or whether an office is accessible. If someone has anxiety or faces depression, they have significantly more control over their environments. This same principle applies to all employees who have been discriminated against in the hiring process because of how they look. It’s not a panacea for inclusion, but it certainly removes many institutional barriers.
With increased access to opportunity wherever you are, families, should they choose, are more able to stay together. On the flip side, there’s also the freedom to leave that comes with untying employment and physical location. This applies not only to travel, ranging from working from a family member’s home to a complete digital nomad lifestyle, but it also gives more economic control to individuals in unsafe living environments or facing domestic violence.
There’s also the critical benefit of preserving culture and local institutions. Across America, institutions like libraries and community centers are being gutted by lack of funding and lack of people. Remote work flips that script. As people can work from anywhere, a community center becomes a potential coworking space, as does a library. Spaces can be reimagined and reused instead of torn down, preserving these landmarks for future generations.
When more people earn good wages, doing good work, and are able to live where they choose, local entrepreneurship flourishes. Whether it’s the cafe down the street, a local restaurant, or even local tax prep services (as remote workers may have slightly more complicated tax filings), when people live full-time in a place and make good money, they want services. This further opens up America’s economy to entrepreneurship, which is prized as the backbone of the country but has been flailing lately.
When people are not forced to make the decision between dead-end jobs or fighting to live in unaffordable cities, they can focus their time (and money) on other productive endeavors. For some, that will be escaping the rat race and refurbishing a historic home. For others, it’s about affording high quality food or purchasing their first home.
Perhaps more than just a job, though, remote work combined with remote education creates an opportunity for people to cultivate an even stronger career path and generate upward mobility. Previously, a disincentive to higher education existed for poor and working-class kids: you’d have to move away for your education and likely never come back if you wanted to get a good job (to say nothing of the burden of student debt lasting decades). With affordable remote education and a myriad of free online resources, people can not only learn new skills in whatever town they want, but they can work in whatever town they want after graduating.
America is suffering from multiple ailments including political polarization, rising inequality, and discrimination against certain groups of people. Psychologists tend to agree that polarization can be reduced through ‘contact theory’ and other forms of seeking common ground. But it’s hard to look for common ground when you have a dead-end job or are struggling to pay rent in a high-cost city. Democratized career opportunities because of remote work, and the mobility that comes with it, is that common ground.
It used to be that you could get good factory or manufacturing jobs in small towns and office jobs in big cities. When the factories closed, big cities grew in wealth while others foundered. With remote work, a new bridge is built where access to opportunity is not based on where you live. This time, everyone can get a slice of the pie.