Remote work is here to stay

Wednesday, February 17, 2021 - 1:21pm

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Design by Man Lam Cheng

College students could reasonably be forgiven for being wary of the future of remote work. After nearly a year of dancing between hybrid classes and fully online ones — the uncertainty often coupled with an increased workload and isolation — remote work might seem like a tough sell. But even after the population reaches herd immunity, many companies are planning to offer more work-from-home options for their employees. 

Salesforce recently announced that it will allow employees to choose if they ever return to the office. Facebook and Twitter also announced similar policies. Other companies are targeting a fall return to the office, but remain tentative and don’t expect a sudden, full-time return. The lack of haste to return to the working place in any capacity speaks to the fact that overall, productivity has not decreased. If anything, it’s up. 

The benefits of working from home are numerous. Fully remote work or hybrid work that allows for less frequent travel means people can live further from expensive urban centers or closer to loved ones. It means commute time can be repurposed into time for family, exercise or rest. It means less traffic and more flexibility. 

We’ve been seeing all of that for almost a year, but have been unable to fully reap the rewards. A sentiment I often see is that we aren’t working from home: We are working through a crisis. Work is the afterthought, the last item on the to-do list after the job of surviving. It would feel a whole lot different if you could choose to do work in a coffee shop one day, for example, or catch up with friends over dinner after work. 

I am excited for the possibility of greater work-from-home opportunities. For one thing, it improves accessibility for everyone. Disability advocates have been asking for greater work-from-home accommodations for years. Even for companies that don’t decide to let the majority of their employees remain remote, the productivity and benefits of remote work will make it harder to deny reasonable accommodations

It is hard to believe how often we went to school or meetings while ill prior to the pandemic. Before a cough represented a potentially deadly virus, it still represented illness, yet the messaging I always received was that a hard-working student would show up anyway. I haven’t even gotten a cold since last March (knock on wood), whereas I feel like I used to be a little bit sick from October to April of every year prior. From now on, if I’m lucky enough to have a job that I can do from home, I’ll stay home with the sniffles and not feel guilty about it. 

Not every job is going to be conducive to remote work, but many likely will, perhaps even entry-level jobs that University of Michigan grads could expect to take. It is, however, going to require a shift of mindset. 

Pandemic-era college students, I predict, are going to come out of college with an obliterated sense of work boundaries. Most of us don’t have the luxury of even separating our workspace from our sleep space the way working adults might. After a day of classes and office hours, many of us have meetings until well past dinner. In the before time, we could pretend those meetings were social, at least a little. Maybe someone would bring food, play music or make small talk before the beginning of the meeting. Now? It’s all work, Zooming past 9:30 p.m.

We’ll likely be in this remote or hybrid setting for the foreseeable future, and I wonder if we, as students, can help restructure some of those virtual boundaries for ourselves. We can’t magically give ourselves home offices or less work, but maybe we can send less of those late-night homework texts? Those club meetings from the “great before,” do they all need to be Zoom calls? 

As many of us prepare to enter the remote workforce, I want to talk more seriously about how we can make it sustainable after the unavoidable mess that has been online school. For me, that means making myself less available after 8 p.m., using my perennial proximity to the kitchen to eat a lot of small meals and occasionally giving up for an hour and lying on my bed. But I seriously can’t wait to be able to take my desk out of my room. 

Jessie Mitchell can be reached at jessiemi@umich.edu.


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