The Problems of Our Remote Work Future

Ed Zitron 10 min read

I promised yesterday that I’d address the problems of a totally remote future, and it turns out that “the future” simply referred to the next day.

I start by saying that I think remote work is an overwhelmingly good thing for the worker, as I said at length yesterday. It is something that disconnects the power dynamic between the boss and the worker, and cuts down on micromanagement and distractions that make doing your work harder. It also, crucially, releases workers from the brutality of their commutes, freeing up the hours and dollars invested in either driving to work or using public transport to get to the office. Even if you have the country’s shortest commute (allegedly South Dakota at an average of 16.6 minutes - I think these stats are way under actual times), that’s still just under 3 hours a week (assuming you work 5 days a week), or 143 hours a year, without removing vacations and such.

That being said, we also can’t immediately flip the switch and demand everybody go remote before we, as a society, reckon with a number of the issues that remote work creates. None of this is to say I’m anti-remote - just that we need to acknowledge them to do this right.

For this newsletter I’m going to focus on America, where I live.

The Connectivity Problem

A lot of tech guys quasi-correctly state that they can work anywhere and thus the remote work future is here, but the key word is “they” can. When you have the funds to simply pick up your life and move to a new place, you can choose one based on broadband availability, access to airports, and any other niceties you choose. The “anywhere” in this case means the anywhere that they have available to them, which is to say “the place that accepts American Dollars” that also has the necessary broadband to do their work.

This is a core problem of the “anywhere” myth - that an alarming amount of Americans do not have access to broadband internet, which is defined as 25mbps download and 3mbps upload. In a study by BroadbandNow, they estimated that 42 million Americans don’t have the ability to purchase broadband internet, let alone access to it, with the FCC dramatically overstating how many had access. Certain states have over 20% of their population without access to broadband internet (EG: Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana), and on average 13% of Americans lack access to the FCC definition of broadband, which BroadbandNow recommends is updated to 100mbps up/50mbps down. In any case, an alarming amount of Americans simply don’t have access to internet that most would consider passable.

Furthermore, these studies also fail to consider the nebulous “up to” speeds that most providers offer. The actual speed of internet varies greatly depending on everything from the amount of people in the area using it to the quality of the cable. For example, my inlaws out in Patterson, California (87 miles, or about an hour and a half from San Francisco) have access to Frontier Internet that’s allegedly 3mbps, but regularly comes in below 1mbps, which is significantly lower than the quality required for Zoom.

I am of course talking in generalities around something that generally feels even worse in person. A sub-20mbps connection can be exhausting if you’re doing anything more than literally what’s on your screen - a family member taking another call, someone else running a download, someone streaming something, and so on - and things begin to get choppy. That’s also assuming that your ISP is playing nice that day, or that your WiFi is good, or that the load of people using your internet in the area isn’t too bad. And, assuming that more people work from home, that “up to” speed will get throttled down thanks to the wonders of shared internet connections.

And why won’t those improve? Because at least 49.7 million Americans have only one choice of internet provider, and 33 million more’s second choice is a slower, less reliable DSL connection. The cable and internet monopoly in America is such that there is no incentive to improve the nation’s internet access outside of areas where they still have competition. Biden’s $100 million broadband plan seeks to accurately map and give every American high-speed internet, but how high-speed are we talking?  What are we

America should invest in it, and based on the LA Times’ analysis, a key part of companies moving their headquarters out of urban centers is predicated on this kind of access:

A blizzard of academic studies offers evidence that ubiquitous, affordable broadband could deliver significant economic benefits. They point to income growth and lower rates of unemployment in rural areas, higher rural home values and property tax bases, a higher likelihood of new companies locating there, and even higher crop yields.

Nevertheless, basic access to the internet should be a right - at the very least a utility - and basic internet access shouldn’t be at the 25mbps level. I also argue that 25mbps is workable but not really fun to have as your specific means of interacting with work - Zoom calls with lag are frustrating, and depending on the reliability of whatever box with an antenna Comcast charges you $10 a month to use, that shit stinks. And yes, you can switch it out for your own, but I’d argue most people don’t know that.

In any case, it’s not just about speed, it’s about consistency of connection, which even people in cities have issues with. But a heavily remote-focused future is going to be tough to reconcile with the current state of broadband in America.

The New Career and Worker Problem

A friend of mine remarked how it’s much easier to view remote work as a positive when you’re already part of an industry. When you’re starting out, those in-person interactions are foundational for building your place in an industry, and oftentimes those after-work drinks can end up being a valuable way to meet people. Meeting clients in person means that you’re more likely to develop deeper relationships that lead to more opportunities, and work events tend to be a way to build out a greater level of confidence within your industry.

Furthermore, while I have gone on at length about why I hate the office and the soft “spontaneity” of having people physically in your radius, mentorship and training is generally something that’s a bit easier in person. You can watch what they’re doing, see and feel what they’re going through based on what they’re physically doing and how they’re reacting. It’s harder to hold the attention of someone new, and also harder to absorb what someone is doing when they’re watching them digitally (or not at all).

When I started out, in-person stuff was what got me where I was - sure, I’ve been good now that I’m extremely online and I get Twitter and I have a following, but early on, I got a lot of my mileage from hanging out with coworkers and their contacts. Even in my first job, which I hated with my entire being, the in-person mentorship was partly effective because he was able to watch and listen to what I was doing. There is absolutely a learning experience you get from being around people and seeing what they do, how they deal with adversity, the cues that are somewhat lost on Zoom.

There are ways to still create these scenarios in a remote environment, but they’re trickier - events will still happen in person that you can go to, but what if you’re remote and a dispersed team? The answer is likely very focused, organized and deliberate training, an acknowledgment that these things were easier in the office but can be recreated digitally with the right setup.

For example, I handle the not-being-in-NYC part of my job (that nevertheless requires me to be in NYC a few times a year) by making very deliberate, ultra-scheduled trips where I cram what would otherwise be spread-apart conversations into one week of constant schmoozing. On a company level, we try and do one meeting somewhere cool and fund to socialize and talk about the state of the company.

I feel as if companies will have to mimic this kind of offsite mentality to make working remote companies, building a culture that is, by definition, dispersed but all fighting toward a common goal. It’s going to be a challenge, and will absolutely lead to awful levels of mandatory fun.

An issue we have is that we don’t generally hire new people because of the difficulty of long-distance learning - it’s tough to get someone acquainted with an entire industry remotely - and I feel as if this will be a problem that compounds as companies get more remote. I feel as if there will have to be an entirely new way of mentoring people in a structured manner - there’s definitely already some sort of software that does it, and I feel as if the relatively unstructured mentorship within the in-person workforce has to be replaced by something that’s both interactive and structured, and specifically not just a series of videos.

The Competition Problem

This is a point that’s hard to fix, really, but it’s very simple: it is already very difficult to get a job, and if a high percentage of work becomes remote, the competition for work will increase. In the same way that finding your new career may be difficult without those in-person interactions, finding a job in general is going to become more difficult because you’re going up against people who aren’t where you are, because it will matter less.

This is also going to become an Old Boy’s Club issue. It’s already the case that people generally find the people who work from them through warm introductions, and people have already been hiring remote. The result is that the gluttony of options will be cut down by using your own internal networks to scout the person, without the thorny problem of “they have to be based in the bay.” There will likely be some alignment on manageable timezones, but fundamentally this will only increase the importance of getting a warm intro to rise above a pack that just grew significantly.

This rise in competition will also compound the use of networks like YCombinator and other investors - there will be more resumes to look at (or not look at) and thus you’ll simply look inward. There will be less serendipitous meetings at events, or in client meetings, or in general. Less physical meetings means less chance encounters.

The Class and Opportunity Problem

By requiring everybody to have a computer to enter knowledge work, and their own internet connection, you are making remote work a class issue. Lower-income Americans have vastly reduced access to technology in comparison to others, and many of them are dependent on their smartphone as their single means of access to the internet - which is not sufficient for doing any form of longform office work, and thus will preclude a large chunk of people from being able to do remote work. And, of course, lower-income households have less access to broadband internet - from that link, in 2015, 35% of lower-income households with school-age children did not have a broadband internet connection at home, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

While the opportunity of remote work suggests that people can have “more chances” to get a good office job (because the office part is less relevant or irrelevant), the reality is far more grim. If you’re low-income, you are less likely to have a working computer, or a smartphone, and even less likely to have both. You are less likely to be able to afford things in general, and the poorer you are, the more likely you are to have no computer or high-speed internet access at home. Nowhere was this more obvious than during the pandemic, specifically when students were forced to work remotely and, of course, those that didn’t have access to a stable internet or computing were left behind.

The basic ability to have a computer and get online to find a job is something that’s already a problem for lower-income workers, and will be compounded by a more competitive career environment. It’s easy to naturally color a remote future as perfect and good when you are able to afford a computer, or have good internet, or both. And as I’ve illustrated, the poorer you are, the more likely you are to lack the means to be the dynamic remote worker of the future that can allegedly hustle their way out of poverty.

The reality is that the current state of American technology access and broadband penetration, combined with a surge in remote work, could easily lead to less access to opportunity for lower income workers. Furthermore, according to a Canadian study, only 44% of jobs are compatible with telecommuting, and if there is a shift in working centers that leads to a reduction of use of large office spaces, the areas around them will naturally reduce the amount of money going into the local community and to service workers that may rely on that income.

This is the thing that really scares me about remote work - it can very easily become a way in which the poor are oppressed and held back, and the digital divide must be crossed.

Solving The Problems

There are no easy solutions, but there are simple ones: we need to make sure that every single person in America has access to high-speed internet and has a computer that runs. If you don’t like this because you claim that socialism is bad or whatever, kiss my big round ass. We need to spend tax dollars so that people can have a computer in their home that works, and fast internet that allows them to take advantage of the fact that there are more jobs that don’t require you going to a place.

I think we also need nationwide municipal broadband - which I realize is a pipedream - or significant subsidized internet access (though I am loathed to see Comcast and others get government funds) for anyone under $50,000 a year. We also need a significant infrastructural push (as Biden has presented) to get everybody actual access to internet. It’s a complex problem to fix, one that requires vast infrastructural investment and an approach that isn’t focused on immediate economic expansion. It needs to be one that recognizes that the future (and the present) is online, and that the means through which we interact with the future requires a high speed internet connection.

We also need to literally give people computers - if we are willing to spend $778 billion on the military, there is zero reason why we shouldn’t buy every single person in America a laptop. The vacuous, idiotic response to this is that “I don’t want my tax dollars buying a rich kid a laptop,” to which I say “kiss my ass” once again - government programs that work need to have participation across every level of class. It needs to be good enough to run Chrome and the Office Suite, and I can already hear the conservatives furious that someone ran Fortnite on it, but it has to happen. Everybody needs to have a computer.

America is capable of dispatching men and women to shoot anyone in any country at any time, sometimes doing so remotely with $16 million-a-piece drones, and there is absolutely no reason we can’t give everybody a damn laptop.

These are the table stakes for the remote future - the mentorship and social problems are dwarfed by the fact that we lack the effort to make sure that everybody has access to the remote future. We must do better, for every person in this country, or we are letting our stewards oversee yet another way in which the poor are crushed underfoot.

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