Harrop: With remote work’s benefits may come some trade-offs

Among advantages, there’s less time spent in commute, but it may also mean less chance for promotion.

By Froma Harrop / syndicated columnist

The surge in covid-19 cases has prompted many companies to put off planned office reopenings, a delay that will undoubtedly be temporary. A lot of businesses, meanwhile, are adopting hybrid systems whereby some employees come into the office and others do their work from home or wherever.

Sounds like good news for those who really don’t want a return to the commuting life. But remote workers may find themselves paying a price in return for freedom of location.

Facebook, Twitter and Google are among the companies cutting pay for employees who choose to work remotely from less expensive parts of the country. The thinking goes that pay scales established at the pre-pandemic office reflected the local cost of living.

A study by Stanford University suggests that highly visible office workers are more likely to be promoted. Workers at a travel agency in Shanghai were divided into two groups: one assigned to work from home and the other told to come into the office. After nine months, the remote workers were promoted half as often as their in-office counterparts, even though they were 13 precent more productive in both hours worked and calls made.

What seems to happen in these situations is that people physically in the office develop more personal ties with co-workers and with the boss. They are known quantities, while those at home become, as they say, out of sight, out of mind.

To even that playing field, the job site Indeed says it may put screens in its office kitchens to enable at-home workers to chat casually with the in-office ones. But could that possibly work? Talking into a laptop to colleagues in an office 100 miles away seems no more an intimate experience than communicating with your 200 “friends” on Facebook.

Is it fair to let people who come into work enjoy advantages over those doing much the same thing from their family rooms?

It is. First off, in-person collaboration is essential to many corporate cultures. That’s the case at Apple, according to CEO Tim Cook. As a concession to those who don’t want to be chained to the office five days a week, Apple said it would develop a hybrid plan whereby workers could come in only three days. Some Apple employees have objected even to that, insisting that they want to perform their jobs where they choose.

But showing up, alas, is often part of the job description. Besides, many workers — nurses, police, kitchen staff — never had a choice of making a living from the comforts of home.

In any case, being allowed to do a job that pays from a vacation cabin is a perk. A dollar value can be attached to not having the expense of commuting. For many, it allows for better control of one’s work schedule. Parents able to work odd hours can save on child care expenses.

Finally, there’s the luxury of not having a supervisor breathing down one’s neck. That could allow for activities generally not tolerated in an office environment. For example, over half of at-home employees say they watch TV or stream content while working, according to Statista.

Do recognize that a lot of lockdown-weary Americans are keen to return to a bustling office. Many Gen Zers, such as 20-year-olds yet to experience a corporate office because of covid-19, are eager to work side-by-side with associates and find mentors, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Workers who can and do perform their assignments remotely should accept that different working circumstances make their jobs different from the ones performed at headquarters. And again, they should be mindful that most American workers don’t have that option at all.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at fharrop@gmail.com.

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