The pros and cons of working remotely

Dave Coplin, the chief envisioning officer at Microsoft (yeah, I don’t believe that title either), talks here about flexible working, which translates to not working in the office. He says it benefits workers. They don’t have to go into an oppressive office, they can do their jobs wherever the technology takes them, and they will be able to contribute more economically to their respective communities by spending their dollars where they live.

So why does that last part raise red flags for me?

Yes, with the today’s technology, we’re on call 24 hours a day. Coplin says in the “Star Trek” part of the illustration that people complain about getting e-mails from work on their days off, and dismisses the complaint by saying it’s the employee’s fault for looking at work e-mail on his or her day off. Okay, I don’t think the chief envisioning officer would necessarily be called at home on his day off if a server goes down, or if some huge business deal materializes, but there are plenty of other workers (and I’ve been one of them) who end up on the hot seat if the boss can’t get them in the event of an emergency.

But even that doesn’t really bother me that much.

My question is: Who exactly benefits if a corporation decides that the new work model will be “flexible work?” I mean, if it’s a corporate decision, doesn’t that tell you the company is doing what it’s decided is best for the company, not necessarily what’s best for the worker?

Maybe I’m overthinking this, but anyone who’s worked for a company that has an IT department knows that when your computer crashes, the IT people who used to be on the next floor aren’t there anymore. You have to call someone off site. And anyone who’s gotten a call from a telemarketer or calls a company for tech support knows that the accent on the other end of the phone isn’t always from the American Southwest but from Southwest Asia.

The day an American conglomerate decides that flexible work or remote work or working from home, or whatever you want to call it, is the official policy, somewhere in the company strategy, there’s going to be a proposal to move jobs offshore, because, as our chief envisioning officer says:

For the average knowledge worker, you don’t have to be in a specific location, a specific point in time, to access specific services. You have all the tools that you need … in your pocket or in your bag, and you can work from anywhere.

Anywhere means “ANYWHERE.” You don’t have to be in a specific city, or state, or region. You can be anywhere on the planet.

And if your saying you’re safe because you work for an American conglomerate, you probably should kiss your job goodbye. Because there is no such thing as an American conglomerate. Conglomerates are global. Microsoft has offices all over the world. So it could one day look at worker salaries at a global level, figure that it could pay a chief envisioning officer in India a modest salary by U.S. standards, which would be a fortune by South Asian standards, and get the same quality of work at a lower price. This video, in a way, proves how easy it is to work from anywhere in the world. Microsoft is on the West Coast. Coplin’s accent is found on the European west coast. And the illustration of the commute. That’s not Washington state. That’s the London Underground.

Your tax returns can be done in South America. (Because I worked abroad, some of my tax returns are still being done in Europe.) Your newspaper editing can be done in any part of the world that has a strong English speaking population. (A lot of news organizations have editing operations that aren’t in the cities, the states or the countries their subscribers are in.) The animation of a movie can be done in Japan or Korea (Next time you to a science fiction blockbuster, look at the names in the end credits of the people who worked on the CGI.).

Job competition is a global matter now. Blue collar manufacturing jobs that used to build the American middle class are now in the developing word. The jobs that Dave Coplin talks about are white collar jobs. Those are now just barely sustaining the American middle class, but they can just as well be done where labor is cheap.

I’m not saying that bad from a global perspective. Higher paying jobs throughout the world will bring a lot of countries out of poverty. Look at the economic growth in China and India. That means more people worldwide have more money to buy more stuff. But that also means that those jobs don’t have to be on our shores.

The only jobs that are safe for now are service-sector jobs, where people have to deal face to face with people. But, as I noted a couple of posts back, those jobs are going to be done by robots.

Oh, and for the record, I’m one of those people who can work from anywhere, and I wouldn’t mind having a flexible work setup. My family lives in one city and I work in another, hundreds of miles away. I can do my job from home in either city.

But, just on a gut level, I really need to be in the same room with the people I’m working with. But I’m from a generation that didn’t have chief envisioning officers.

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