Remote Work Has Inequality Problems, But That Doesn't Make The Office Superior

Ed Zitron 6 min read

The Times, as usual, is fighting the bold fight against remote work, this time framing remote work as something that is a winning scenario for “the few, rather than the many.” The author, a guy who I’d put in J.R. Hennssey’’s “entire brand is Thinking” category, makes an extremely mealy-mouthed argument that remote work creates a disparity in wealth, based on (as usual) some clunky economic theory - that “when a market expands, the benefits tend not to accrue equally to all participants.”

He also makes a hilariously broken argument that even the most bird-brained editor would fix [emphasis mine]:

Similar dynamics can be seen in professions that were assumed to be inherently “in-person.” During the lockdowns, most fitness instructors were out of work. But a handful were thriving — especially those who worked for Peloton. By the end of 2020, Peloton had about four million members — equal to the number of gym patrons in New York State. Unlike New York’s fitness industry, Peloton did not employ 86,000 people in a single state.

Instead, the company’s millions of members were served by several dozen instructors who could live anywhere they liked. While most fitness instructors could not work at all, some Peloton instructors earned more than $500,000 — more than 12 times the median salary of their peers.

Fascinating stuff, Dror! And definitely a strong argument, as long as you don’t actually use Peloton or do any research. The fact is that Peloton instructors may theoretically be able to live anywhere they like, but they have to go to the Peloton studio to film the classes. Mr. Poleg’s argument - that these instructors were vastly out-earning their fellow fitness instructors - is based on the (false) idea that Peloton instructors film from home, which they do not, and that remote work is responsible for this equation, which only makes sense most tangentially. If his argument was “oh, Peloton has made it harder for fitness instructors to find work because people are using Peloton instead,” that’s a separate argument that isn’t really about the instructors.

Sidenote: I realize it’s petty to hyper-analyse one bit, but he used this as a pretty long argument in a relatively short piece to prove that remote work creates inequality. Someone with even the slightest knowledge might be able to hammer an argument out here that Peloton creates inequality within the fitness industry by the company’s existence, and that tech-enabled fitness is something that is naturally exclusionary and, indeed, may lead to gym closures, because more people are working out at home - specifically those who can afford the bike and the subscription.

The problem is that remote work isn’t really the problem there! If anything, his argument strengthens the remote working debate - that there are very clear things that require you to be in a specific space - say, doing a high-end streaming - but those that don’t require it likely don’t need that investment.

Note: Peloton did have a few classes around the beginning of the pandemic “at home” where instructors taught classes from their homes. They weren’t great! They also haven’t done them for over a year. I know, because I sat down and scrolled and scrolled and scrolled and I’m now in August 2020, and there are no at home classes. I don’t remember exactly when it was and Peloton’s search is really bad.

His other arguments, or those made without making up stuff, oscillate between talking about all employment and tech workers. The reason that I find this annoying is because it makes his argument incredibly hard to follow, mostly boiling down to “more people means more competition, which is bad, but also remote has good things, and “promises a higher ceiling, but a lower floor as well,” which I imagine must have felt like a really strong conclusion but really doesn’t make a ton of sense.

The central premise of this argument is that getting a job that wasn’t remote was somehow easy, or at least significantly easier than getting a remote one might be. In fact, he argues that “while access to more candidates increases the odds of an ideal match, it also introduces more “noise” into the selection process, leaving a bigger role for chance events in determining which candidates end up earning more throughout their career.”

This was already a god damn problem, and someone who has had a job in the last decade would know that. Getting a sit-down desk job required you to basically email resumés into the wind and hope that the HR person would even read your resumé and cover letter - the latter of which is rarely indicative of actual job performance - and then pass it onto someone who would actually consider you. This is absolutely going to be a problem for people applying for remote jobs. Still, I do not think that it will be significantly worse, mostly because people already applied for jobs from other cities, and would oftentimes move to those cities to do those jobs.

This isn’t to say that remote positions won’t see more competition - not at all - but that the current way people find jobs isn’t significantly more equitable. Mr. Poleg argues that these chance encounters are how people will find a job - guess what, asshole! That’s how it worked when everyone was in the office! I found my job because I got introduced to someone who introduced me to someone else! If anything, being remote means that you can get digital introductions, you can ‘meet’ people on Twitter and actually get on the phone with them with more success than you would if you were at Happy Hours or work functions!

Furthermore, the office is a hub of inequality. At their most basic, going to the office requires you oftentimes to dress a certain way, which also means being able to afford to dress a certain way, and these requirements become much more stringent if you’re not white and male. Assuming you can get a job in a big city, you also have to have the money to move there, and then enough money to stick around until you’re paid your first month’s wages. While you are also required to afford a computer and internet to do a remote job, the fiscal and physical requirements are significantly reduced. While one can argue more people going after remote jobs makes it harder to get a job, one can also argue that more remote jobs opening up will mean you have the same if not better chances of securing one.

This is yet another piece from the Times that lacks the basic veracity I at least look for in my own newsletter, let alone when I’ve written for other places. My editor for the piece I wrote for The Atlantic would comment on and challenge me on positions I held - I’m glad he did! - yet it seems the Times’ editing team seems to go out and have a smoke whenever someone writes about remote work. Positing the question “who wins and who loses?” and failing to really detail who the winners will be is irresponsible and an absolute chore to read.

This is likely because, like all things, there is inequality, and those with privilege will obviously succeed more. Those with privilege will be more likely to be presented with job opportunities versus applying for them, or apply knowing someone on the inside. People with privilege will have faster internet connections, better computers, more space to work remotely - this is all blatantly obvious stuff that even a child or a dog with a special keyboard for dogs could think up and write down - but the argument that more opportunity for workers is bad could only be made by an outlet run by a 64-year-old man and written by a guy who, from what I can establish, has not had a normal job in his life.

The problem with these articles is that they are clearly written for an audience that wants their bias confirmed, rather than to inform people. It may seem harmless to view an anti-remote op-ed in a vacuum, but the consistent months-long flow of them suggests that someone has a very clear vested editorial interest in getting people back to the office.

If you want to know who the real losers of the remote debate are, it’s the people whose bosses are influenced by The New York Times. When you have a newspaper of record that has dedicated real editorial muscle to fighting against something, you are not simply identifying the winners and losers of a situation, you are actively choosing who they will be. The Times is - I hope unconsciously but fear otherwise - willfully fighting against remote work with every single one of these pieces, and as I’ve written before, the losers of this equation will be workers.

No amount of half-assed sourcing can disprove that remote work works, but constantly publishing how bad remote work is in a vague, speciously argued manner will make sure that the truth won’t interfere with old, powerful assholes’ power fantasies of underlings skittering around their cubicles.

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