Money  /  Longread

The Perpetual Disappointment of Remote Work

What the troubled history of telecommuting tells us about its future.

What will the Covid-19 pandemic look like from the future? Perhaps the exceptional imagery will be most lasting: personless cityscapes, protesters in masks (and anti-mask protesters), the empty shelves where toilet paper used to be, death-count infographics, and denialist comment threads. But for the middle class and its remnants, those who worked from home, this period will be remembered with a different array of images. Theirs was a narrower horizon: a semipermanent Zoom meeting with colleagues in AirPods and athleisure, interrupted by the occasional surprise of a pet or a child. Exile from the office has been cast as one of this plague’s few consolations—and, we are told, a transformation that is already set in semipermanence.

By April 2020, 62 percent of American workers had switched to home-based work; many of the rest had occupations that were too manual or too essential to perform remotely. Some companies, like Twitter, sent all of their staff out of the office indefinitely, announcing a “forever” policy that would extend beyond the contagion period. This grand experiment in teleworking has been examined in a rash of think pieces; they tend to strike an optimistic note. “Major corporations will readily adopt Twitter’s model,” said Forbes, citing worker productivity, real estate savings, environmental concerns, work-life balance, and reductions in commuting time.

If these arguments in favor sound familiar, it is because some are already generations old. For decades, advocates of telework have faced a paradox. All the upsides Forbes listed are genuine: They are the benefits of the practice so intuitive as to be almost self-evident. Yet widespread adoption of remote work has remained, until now, an impressively stubborn failure. Ambitious forecasts of its uptake, made by business analysts and futurists like Alvin Toffler, who wrote The Third Wave, a 1980 book about society’s transition into the “information age,” were thwarted. Toffler predicted the widespread advent of home computer terminals, but not their use. He imagined the home PC as a sort of digital hearth in an “electronic cottage,” a socialist-entrepreneurial hybrid zone where familial teams would achieve “increased ownership of the ‘means of production’ by the worker.” “If as few as 10 to 20 percent of the work force as presently defined were to make this historic transfer over the next 20 to 30 years,” he wrote, “our entire economy, our cities, our ecology, our family structure, our values, and even our politics would be altered almost beyond our recognition.” Instead, the academic Patricia L. Mokhtarian found, the portion of workers staying at home shifted from around 2.3 percent in 1980 to just 5.3 percent in 2018.

Moreover, some high-profile adopters of remote work even recanted. In the mid-2010s, companies like IBM and Yahoo began calling their employees back into the office. IBM, formerly one of the most telework-friendly companies in the world (in 2009, some 40 percent of its 386,000-strong workforce were ...