Remote work is here to stay. Lean in, employers.
Many working parents have experienced some version of these stressful scenarios: an essential meeting runs over, a subway is delayed, you’re stuck in traffic. The day care pickup deadline looms, the minutes tick by, and you’re trapped in a conference room, on the train or in bumper-to-bumper traffic, knowing you’ll be late. Some day cares and after cares will simply fine you for your lateness, while others have rules stipulating that if you’re too late too many times, you could get kicked out of the program — a fair rule; child care workers need to leave work at a reliable time, too.
This frantic dash disappears when you can work remotely or more flexibly, when day care is within walking distance or a short drive, or when a parent can leave an office earlier in the day without penalty. There are a million other little pressures relieved by eliminating a mandatory daily commute, including the costs, which can be worse now because of inflation, not having to lug expressed milk all over town if you’re a nursing parent and the time back in your day to have more meals with your family — something we’re told is pivotal for our children’s well-being.
I was thinking about all this, and remembering many days of sweating on the F train, when I read a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research titled “The Covid-19 Baby Bump,” which suggested that remote work was among the factors that generated a baby boomlet in the United States in 2021. That’s because remote work decreased the opportunity costs — or what’s given up — of childbearing for some workers. Per the report, by the economists Martha J. Bailey, Janet Currie and Hannes Schwandt:
The underlying economic model of childbearing emphasizes the role of both income effects and opportunity costs. Many women saw little income loss and even income gains due to pandemic support programs. Yet fertility gains were concentrated in groups such as college-educated women who saw drastic reductions in the opportunity cost of having a child, when they were able to work from home and work schedules became more flexible. The reduction in opportunity costs may have been greatest for childless women, who did not have to cope with the simultaneous loss of day care and schooling opportunities for older children.
Cali Williams Yost, a flexible-workplace strategist and the author of “Work + Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You,” told me in an email that even though the paper doesn’t mention it, “The partners of prospective mothers also, in many cases, had the same access to remote work and flexibility, which is further opportunity cost reduction on mothers because they don’t have to shoulder the burden alone.”
The desire for remote and flexible work among parents is echoed in a recent report from Future Forum, an initiative of the Slack messaging app. (Slack, of course, is one of the tools that make remote work easier.) The report, which describes itself as “a quarterly survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers in the U.S., Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the U.K.,” found that “83 percent of working moms now want location flexibility,” while 60 percent of working moms and 50 percent of working dads “want to work remotely 3 to 5 days a week.” The report found that “fully in-office workers are the least satisfied with their working arrangements: they report significantly worse employee experience scores compared to hybrid and full-time remote employees, most notably for work-life balance and work-related stress and anxiety.”
The economists Edward Glaeser and David Cutler, more skeptical of remote work, argue that permanent remote work will hurt relationships, innovation and productivity. Writing for The Washington Post last year, they said “people who shift to working from home can temporarily increase the amount of work they get done in a given day. But over the medium to long term, long-distance employment can’t deliver key benefits — including learning and new friendships — that come from face-to-face contact.”
Their view seems to reflect an established view of workplace dynamics, one that predates the all-day electronic communication that is the backdrop to our modern lives. I worked a remote job when I was 25, and I wonder if these esteemed economists have ever formed an instant message-based friendship — I’ve kept friends from that workplace to this day. A great deal of connection and mentorship can happen remotely; it just takes intentional arrangement and encouragement from management to make that happen. And working remotely doesn’t mean you can never, ever see co-workers IRL. It just means that the cadence of in-person work might be different.
In various ways, the old way of face-time-obsessed office work wasn’t working particularly well for mothers, who sometimes lost out on in-person mentorship and networking opportunities anyway; we still do the majority of child care, and can’t always schmooze at after-work drinks because caregiving demands intervene. Companies of all types could stand to be much more intentional about how mentorship opportunities are doled out, and a greater percentage of remote workers might force companies to go in that direction.
“The complaints that remote work destroys company culture and prevents mentorship directly relate to the fact that the pandemic shift remote work was crisis-driven and not a thoughtful, intentional implementation,” Yost said. “A well-executed flexible work strategy addresses upfront, ‘what do we need to do to build culture and mentor talent?’ then determines ‘how, when and where do we do that best based on the realities of our jobs and lives?’ That’s not left to chance.”
Charlie Warzel, a friend, a former Times colleague and a co-author of “Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home,” told me via DM (see?) that he thought workers may even be better connected with both bosses and employees in a flexible environment. “Distributed work introduces friction for managers and they have to learn to manage people as people and not manage by proximity,” he said.
The point isn’t that there’s something wrong with working from an office. It’s that there’s something right about working from home.
It’s important to acknowledge that workers who can do their jobs remotely are a privileged group. Some jobs have to be client-facing, and some jobs really need that in-person component to function properly. It will also probably take years for the pro-remote work argument to fully sink in with the people who have the power to make it the new normal. And giving workers with caregiving responsibilities the flexibility to manage their lives is a drop in the bucket in terms of what America would need to do to make this country truly family friendly. But it’s a very necessary start.