Why aren’t more of us working from home?

Remember when the idea of working from home was exciting and exotic and transgressive and a little bizarre? Yeah, that time should be over by now. But, despite the ready availability of the technology to facilitate working from home — or on the road — lots of people are still being dragged into work every day by employers who apparently haven’t gotten the memo. Why aren’t more people working from home, and what does it say about society?

I encounter this attitude a lot when I’m trolling MediaBistro for jobs (hi, hire me!) — the bulk of publishing and media jobs are located in New York, followed by San Francisco and DC. A few jobs distribute themselves across the country in places like Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles. The majority of these positions require in person working: We hire you, you show up in our physical space. Especially in media, which is often highly mobile, especially in the case of online-only publications, it’s really perplexing to see employers insisting on in-person work when there’s really no rationale for it. People can work just as well, if not better, at home, and the fact that workplaces are stuck to this hidebound notion that they need people to be present in person is really indicative of the culture surrounding work and who works in this country.

For some jobs, obviously, physical employee presence is required. It’s hard to provide medical care remotely (though remote technologies increase access to care in rural areas!), just like you can’t build a house by not being there, or cook in a restaurant without physically being in the kitchen. But for a huge majority of media and tech jobs, there’s no reason to be there in person — though employers like to claim it’s necessary for collaboration and team building and bonding, as though a workplace will fall apart if people can’t dodge each other’s farts in the bathroom.

Remote working, conversely, provides a lot of benefits, and it’s worth exploring some of them to see how they tie into the way people think about work in America.

Environmental. Maintaining an office building requires a huge amount of environmentally-unfriendly infrastructure, from the building itself to the utilities to the garbage generated to a host of other issues within the structure of a workplace. The energy for those computers, the water in the bathrooms, this is all coming from somewhere. Moreover, employees themselves are also coming from somewhere, and not necessarily on public transit. That means they’re clogging the roads, creating congestion and pollution, and contributing to negative quality of life both for people who really do need to physically commute, and for people in the communities they commute through.

Parenting. Parenting, especially as a single parent, is a really tough and unenviable job, especially for parents of young children who aren’t attending school yet. Some parents like being physically present in the workplace and have access to childcare or are able to afford it. Others do not, and really wish they could stay at home with their new kids for a few months or new. Working remotely facilitates parenting and includes parents, especially when it’s presented as an option in conjunction with work-sponsored childcare so parents don’t feel forced out of the workplace.

Disability. Some 20 percent of the population is disabled, yet the disability unemployment rate is nearly double that of nondisabled people. Part of that is because of the structure of social benefits and services in the US, a country that effectively creates enforced poverty for people who need government assistance. But it’s also because many workplaces are unfriendly to disabled people. Working remotely allows people to adjust light levels, working environment, hours, and a host of other things that can influence their productivity. It allows someone to work from bed on a bad pain day, managing pain more effectively while still getting things done.

Caregivers. Parents aren’t the only ones taking care of people. People may be providing short or long-term assistance to aging family members or friends, disabled people, and numerous others in their lives. Having to work is what forces them to put people in long-term care, or makes them struggle to avoid in-person supports. Working from home gives people greater freedom and flexibility — though it must be combined with a change in governmental attitudes because people shouldn’t be treated as free caregivers just because they have a schedule that allows them to support the people around them.

Travel. Especially for underrepresented groups, the ability to travel is key, because it opens up networking opportunities at conferences and events, provides consulting possibilities, and opens up a whole new world. Yet, it’s frustrating to take time off from work when it should be possible to work remotely while engaging in career development — for people babysitting complex and demanding projects, it’s just not possible to leave the office, and it shouldn’t be this way.

Economic. It doesn’t escape notice that most of the major career opportunities take place in the context of places with very high costs of living. For people with few financial obligations, maybe this is frustrating but manageable. People balancing living expenses beyond the ‘ordinary,’ though, can’t afford it. Tech people can’t build a future in Silicon Valley when they can’t afford to work there. Journalists can’t make their field more diverse if they can’t afford to live in New York. The list goes on.

Remote working opens up employment opportunities to people who are traditionally shut out of the workplace. That fights poverty and structural inequality while diversifying the workforce and bringing valuable experiences and skills to companies that need them. The workplace isn’t a 9-5, one employer for life kind of place anymore. It should be as flexible, creative, and diverse as it can possibly be — and that includes creating space for remote workers, so that people can contribute at any time, from anywhere. Companies need to be thinking about how to integrate this into their diversity and inclusion strategy, and they’ll benefit if they do.

Image: WOCinTechChat, Flickr