Allow me to get this out of the way: I would prefer if none of this had happened.
I would prefer if the novel coronavirus hadn’t jumped from its original pangolin/bat/civet host and into a human being. I would prefer if the government had responded aggressively and competently from the beginning. I would prefer if no one needed to make the who-lives-and-who-dies decisions now being forced on health care workers in Lombardy, Spain, and New York City. None of this is worth the human cost or the economic cost, and we will be unpacking the failure of our government’s response for years to come. (Our failure to roll out testing was a complete embarrassment, and we’ll soon be saying the same about the first economic stimulus.)
That said, I hope you don’t mind me speculating about some of the follow-on effects of the Covid-19 crisis (I just finished Tiger King, and I’m officially out of things to do).
In this post, I will think through how and why it will change work, and in a follow-up post, I’ll do the same for politics.
I am not a contrarian: The primary implication of the crisis will be acceptance of – and indeed, demand for – remote work.
Employees will finally realize they can lead more complete lives without commuting; companies will finally realize that paying people to cluster in a handful of coastal cities is silly; productivity, having languished for years, will finally rise as we harness new talent and technology.
It will be an unambiguously good thing in a world that could use a few more unambiguously good things (and no, Tiger King doesn’t count – it should have been at least two episodes shorter).
Of course, if I believe that, then I must contend with the following question: If remote work is so great, then why hasn’t it happened already? Econ 101 Thinking would tell us that the $20 bill we see on the ground isn’t actually there. If it were, someone would have swiped it.
But as useful as Econ 101 Thinking can sometimes be, it fails us here.
So many management concepts pretend to be about efficiency when they’re really about enforcing norms. For example, a classic conservative/Econ 101 argument against anti-discrimination law is that any company that refuses to hire talented employees because they are women/minorities/disabled/etc. is shooting themselves in the foot. Those talented employees will be snatched up by more morally upstanding firms, who will then apply that talent to the goal of running the discriminatory firms out of business.
Of course, that’s now how it actually works in practice. If the norms against hiring marginalized employees are strong enough, then no amount of potential profit will lead to managerial enlightenment.
Similarly, while companies could have already become more efficient by embracing remote work, the norms against it were too strong. Employers have been locked in a feudal conception of labor: We need to watch the peons vigilantly, lest they laze about.
The Covid-19 crisis will put that fear to rest permanently. As a manager, I’ve been struck by how hard my team is working. (Indeed, I’ve needed to tell them to log off, not on – watch some Tiger King, people!)
An informal poll of my network confirms the same. Even with kids at home, even with routines disrupted, even with the psychological stress of the current moment, work is happening. This realization has caused a change in the internal messaging at many companies: At the beginning of March, they were emphasizing how to stay productive during the crisis; now they’re emphasizing how to stay sane.
Of course, the embrace of remote work is a two-way street, so it’s important to consider it from the employee side, too. While it seems obvious that employees would like it, a priori I’m not so sure. If you are smart and ambitious, then living in a superstar city felt necessary, despite the rent burden. How else could you tap into the right networks and opportunities? But now, as conferences move online and as we develop new norms around remote socialization, the importance of face-to-face will diminish. “Could you meet for coffee?” will become “Could you meet on Zoom?” And because more job opportunities will be remote (see above), this effort won’t feel wasted for either party. A virtuous cycle will begin.
I should admit: Prior to the crisis, I was skeptical of remote work gaining broad acceptance. I assumed it hadn’t caught on because there was something magical about meeting face-to-face, something that could never cross the digital chasm. And who knows? Maybe that’s part of it. Maybe the super ambitious will continue to cram into San Francisco studios to tap into that magic.
But really, I think the primary explanation is that we’d never been forced to create the norms we needed to effect the transition. From the employer side, efficiency wasn’t enough (managers tend to manage within the system, not challenge it). From the employee side, being the first person to suggest a Zoom rather than a coffee was too scary. Is that too simple? I dunno. I do know that we are norm-following machines: There’s a norm in the US against wearing masks, so no one wears masks. When this norm ends, as seems likely, you’ll see mask-wearing like you’d never believe. Because given a push (in this case, a century-defining pandemic), human beings become norm-creating machines. It’s why we’ve managed to dominate the physical world, by developing norms for survival in places as different as Africa and Alaska. It’s why we’ve managed to dominate the industrial world, by developing norms for productivity in regimes as different as 18th century London and 20th century Detroit. And it’s why we’ll now – finally – come to dominate the digital world.
Maybe we needed an unthinkable, world-changing public health crisis to make us realize that it was safe to work from home. To kickstart the mass migration. To shake us from complacency and force us, once more, to adapt – just like we’ve been doing for 300,000 years.
The environment changes, and then we do.
Hopefully it’s for the better.