Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: Remote work allows more accessibility, but poses risk for overworking, increasing disparity

Gov. Charlie Baker and his administration are planning for a permanent hybrid or remote work option for state employees after the pandemic. This means up to half of the state workforce could be conducting work virtually, even after offices reopen.

Outside the government, many other employers and organizations are also having conversations about permanent remote work — such as the Massachusetts High Technology Council, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Square and numerous other technology companies across the country.

What are the implications of the pandemic ushering in a new age of work life and culture?

For starters, it’s insulting that people with disabilities who needed accommodations to work from home have not been given the opportunity prior to the pandemic.

Still, it is now an option for those who need it — for the most part — and we’ve proved remote work is possible, which may open the doors to in-person workplace accommodations that have been dismissed in the past.

It’s also more accessible to able-bodied people as well: Now that commuting to work is out of the picture, people can apply for positions halfway across the country and work more flexible hours.

However, having more job applicants from both local and out-of-state pools could increase the competition and make securing a job or internship that much harder. 

Alexia Nizhny/DFP STAFF

Workspaces are also adapting. In the near future, there may be smaller offices designed with an emphasis on collaborative spaces. But having less office space and spending less time in the office aren’t necessarily positives, and remote work comes with its own set of challenges.

Employees need a physical space designated for work rather than just working from home indefinitely. The already blurred line between our professional and personal lives will only further deteriorate or altogether vanish with the introduction of virtual workplaces.

Prior to the pandemic, many assumed remote work decreased productivity. In reality, more than half of surveyed people were more productive from home, according to FlexJobs. They attribute the change to a quieter, more comfortable work environment with fewer disruptions.

Yet many workers may not have the privilege of a peaceful, focused work space at home. And more often than not, remote work lends itself to multi-tasking and overextension: working longer hours, constantly being “available,” taking on multiple commitments at once.

If you’re constantly working in places that are normally dedicated to cooking, eating, sleeping, socializing and resting, it can disrupt your life balance and allow work to completely take over. It’s no surprise that remote work has only increased the prevalence of burnout.

Furthermore, Zoom calls take away your sense of privacy, inviting your boss and coworkers to see into your home life — literally. Some employers have even taken monitoring to the next level, mandating employers to download surveillance and tracking technology onto their laptops and threatening to cut their pay if they step away from their computers.

Evidently, employers are feeling entitled to more of their employees’ time and lives — an obviously unhealthy culture to foster. It’s a complete invasion of privacy and should not be tolerated as remote work continues. And I’d also just like to mention that I have just signed up for a virtual office service and it’s brilliant, so have a look at those kinds of service if you would like more privacy.

In France, a 2017 labor law gave employees the “right to disconnect” from emails and digital work outside of regular hours. It helps reset those boundaries we may have lost and boost the health of employees.

If the United States is seeing a shift toward remote and hybrid work, we should follow in France’s footsteps in addition to banning the constant surveillance some companies have implemented.

By doing so, the future of work digitalization looks much more positive and gives individuals the freedom to choose what their work life looks like — without fear of overworking themselves.

However, it isn’t just burnout or an unhealthy work-life balance that we risk facing. The integration of remote work could potentially invite greater disparity between jobs and the demographics of certain positions.

Not everyone has access to the technology or the space to be able to work at home. Employers should provide workers with necessary software, laptops and free Wi-Fi, but in some cases, that may not be enough. Especially in rural areas, Wi-Fi can be unreliable or hard to find.

If remote work doesn’t come with the guarantee of functioning technology, many workers may not be able to afford it themselves. During the pandemic, generations of structural racism and inequalities have already pushed people of color to the frontlines of essential work, making them disproportionately at risk to the virus as a result of being overrepresented in service and social work. 

So if remote work becomes more normalized, could it lead to in-person, low-wage positions, such as those in the service industry, becoming further overrepresented by people of color who don’t have the privilege of finding a remote job?

There’s also the question of whether remote workers will — or should — be paid more. If they receive a higher salary for being “more productive,” it could contribute to the income disparity.

We don’t exactly know how increasing permanent remote work will impact the workforce — though it certainly comes with a number of risks and faults. But if employers can implement healthy practices and anticipate the technological needs of their employees, it could be an evolution for the better.

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