Can Remote Work Be Fixed? My Latest Article For The New Yorker

Earlier today, I published my latest article for the New Yorker. It’s titled: Can Remote Work Be Fixed?

In this semi-epic long-form essay, I dive into the history of the remote work movement, documenting why, after decades of excitement, it ended up falling short of its potential.

I then tackle the big question on a lot of peoples’ mind at the moment: Now that all knowledge workers are forced to work remotely, will we manage to fix these issues? Now that it’s urgent, in other words, can we make remote work actually work?

As you’ll discover, I find some room for optimism. Drawing lessons from the analogous history of the introduction of the electric dynamo to early 20th-century factories (this is a New Yorker article, after all), I argue that the pandemic might end up a forcing function that solves many — though certainly not all — of the issues that arrested remote work’s original rise.

Ultimately, even after we return to a modified normal with more people once again working in offices, these fixes will continue to pay dividends. As I write:

“Before the pandemic, we were already suffering through a productivity crisis, in which we seemed to be working longer hours, glued to screens and drowning in e-mails. The solutions that make remote work sustainable—more structure and clarity, less haphazardness—may also help fix these other long-standing problems in knowledge work. Work that is remote-friendly for some may be better work for all.”

Anyway, you’ll have to read the whole piece to get the details. I have no doubt that fans of the type of stuff we discuss here will find a lot to like in it…

11 thoughts on “Can Remote Work Be Fixed? My Latest Article For The New Yorker”

  1. Great article Cal, thanks for sharing. I really loved the corporation inertia faced during the advent of industrial electricity to 100% remote work. Really thought-provoking, it will be a tool for a conversation with my team at work.

  2. Excellent article, Cal.

    The standout idea for me is the idea of a Chief Workflow Officer.

    I’ve spent 20 years in the software industry, and the “Scrum Master” role is probably the first rudimentary step towards this.

  3. As a recently retired detective, I believe the office environment fostered inefficiency and laziness. More cases could would be solved without the distraction and time wasters that occur in our modern police offices around the nation.

  4. “this is a New Yorker article, after all” – definitely laughed at that one. I subscribed for 25 years but finally gave up. As much as I like some of the writers there, the Pretentiousness Index is astronomical.

  5. Marissa Meyer waas wrong and a terrible boss to work for.

    Knowledge work carries with it an ambiguity that causes a lot of the extra work that results in long email conversations and so on. Basically, a lack of communication skills and lack of good rules causes that.
    It is easy for a factory worker building a car to know what he has to do, what tools he does it with and when his work is of the right qualtiy. Now compare that to knowledge work. How many emails (and other requests) have you gotten that makes you wonder what they are asking, what they and why they are asking you and whether it is your responsibility to do so?

  6. In my current position, I found some of the implications of this to be painfully true. I am compensated to move information, correct databases and respond to ad-hoc messages/tasks via email and text.

    The incentives here are perverse when you reflect on them: the longer I take to do my job, the higher my compensation. If I were to steal away a few hours of deep work to automate some of my workflows, that could potentially lead to me letting myself go in favor of the program.

    I’d be interested to hear public opinion polls or data on this exact type of situation- where the option to “work more” is in place due to older incentives to clock in more hours.

  7. I wish you would have mentioned how remote work provides better accessibility for some disabled people – as someone with a physical impairment and a fatigue condition, as well as neurodiversity such as ADHD, commuting to a shared open office space that is full of distractions, and requires me to get up quite early, the ‘presenteeism’ culture of many workplaces has often impeded my ability to work effectively. The physical energy I had to work would be lost on my commute, and my mental energy would be impeded by having to work during office hours even though I am much more alert in the evenings.

  8. Well, after this pandemic most of the companies have realized that they can easily adapt to remote work and many have seen better productivity after letting their employees work from home because when you’re at your workplace, you might get distracted due to a lot of factors, but when you’re home there’s no disturbance and you find a calm and tranquil environment to finish your tasks and I think that’s what more important to a company.

    You’ve raised a very crucial point, Cal. I hope more and more employers pay heed to it.


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