Two decades ago, Google hired a former chef for the Grateful Dead to do something nice for its employees — serve them free food. Chef Charlie Ayers competed with two dozen other chefs to win a cook-off judged by the company’s 40 employees. Ayers recounted his first interview with Sergey Brin, in a small office above a bike shop in Palo Alto:
“'You need a chef here?' I said, ‘Most of the best restaurants in this town are at the street level down below.’” According to Ayers, Brin replied, “No no. One day we’ll be tens of thousands of employees and we’ll need a chef that grows with us.”
He eventually oversaw a private food service operation that offered free breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He made a sign in the cafe: The company that eats together makes money together.
“After a while I realized what my true role there was: Creating the illusion that you were anywhere else but work.”
Free food soon became a symbol of the dotcom era, one in which work and life were blended together inextricably. Over the next two decades, tech companies expanded ever deeper into employees’ lives — in addition to subsidized healthcare and retirement plans, they were providing meals, childcare, private commuter shuttles, workout and yoga instruction, social connections, a greater purpose (usually “change the world”), free clothing stamped with company logos, an all-inclusive campus-resort where you never leave, and yes, a work spouse.
Now, amid a global pandemic, workers have been given an enticing new perk: The freedom to work remote. And with it, we must confront the long-term costs of what it means for the workers who get this freedom, and those who never will.
The greatest office perk of all is no office. I can attest to this. I worked for six years at a tech company that is entirely remote, and it is indeed a game-changer. I was more productive, I saved hours of commute time, I exercised more, and I got to spend more time with my family. When a child got sick or had a doctor's appointment, I could easily change my schedule without losing a paycheck.
For those who are able to work from any computer with an internet connection, going remote has offered a glimpse of what our lives look like when a corporation is not at the center of it. “CEOs Rediscover the Family Dinner Table,” The New York Times touted in a recent headline:
Before the coronavirus pandemic, John Foley, the chief executive and founder of Peloton, and his wife, Jill, a vice president at Peloton, would leave the house each morning by 7:45 a.m. and not come home until 7:30 p.m. By then, their nanny had already fed and gotten their two children ready for bed.
“That wasn’t awesome,” Mr. Foley said. “We didn’t share any meals.”
Then, in March, everything changed. Not only was the Foley family having dinner together every night, they were together all of the time.
“You wake up together, you all have breakfast together, you work together, have lunch together, you have dinner together, you wake up the next morning and you do it again,” said Mr. Foley, who has an 8-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son.
A BCG survey of 12,000 workers found that 67% want this more flexible work model to continue, and more than 70% of managers are now more likely to be open to remote work. If remote work becomes permanent — Microsoft has already announced its intentions to keep work flexibility in place — there are many potential long-term benefits. Companies will be free to recruit talent anywhere around the world, creating opportunities for workers previously shut out from coveted tech industry jobs. Work flexibility also creates more opportunity for those with disabilities, for whom traditional offices are not accessible or conducive to their best work. And it could offer a critical pressure-release valve for the rising housing costs in the cities where tech jobs are concentrated. Daily commuter traffic and its carbon emissions could disappear from gridlocked city streets.
But the fact remains: Remote work is not accessible to all, and it will come at a significant cost to the health and safety of those left behind. According to some studies, anywhere from 37-40% of jobs could theoretically go “remote”, which means 60% of workers never will be able to. This cuts across race — according to the Economic Policy Institute, Black and Brown communities have been hit the hardest both in terms of health outcomes and economic instability during the pandemic. Black Americans who have a greater percentage of essential and frontline jobs have faced higher unemployment during the pandemic, and they account for 22.4% of COVID-19 deaths, despite being 12.5% of the U.S. population. Meanwhile, millions of workers in the U.S. don't even have paid sick leave, which impacted the country's COVID numbers.
It's one thing for remote workers to be grateful for a safe and flexible work environment; it is another to shield one's eyes from its external impact. Remote work could exacerbate the inequality that was already so visible on the streets of tech hubs like San Francisco and Seattle. As journalist Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez described it at the time:
These folks live in a tech cocoon. They ride a Google bus or like a private commuter shuttle paid for by their companies to work. They work through the day, and eat in the cafeterias on-site, and don’t mingle with the community, and take Ubers and Lyfts out to party. At a certain point, you’ve got some tech workers who live in the city who kind of feel like ghosts. You kind of see hints of them, you see the buses gleaming through the city, but you don’t really see them.
Remote work’s negatives are less visible, and more insidious. Workers are spread out and quietly operating from virtual gated communities. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom called remote work “a time bomb for inequality,” exacerbated by COVID as some workers stay home while essential workers risk their lives in hospitals, stores, delivery trucks, and restaurants — and that’s if they have access to childcare. If they don’t, they leave the workforce entirely.
Our results show that more educated, higher-earning employees are far more likely to work from home – so they are continuing to get paid, develop their skills and advance their careers. At the same time, those unable to work from home – either because of the nature of their jobs, or because they lack suitable space or internet connections – are being left behind. They face bleak prospects if their skills and work experience erode during an extended shutdown and beyond.
Meanwhile, for those of us who are sitting out this pandemic on Slack, the great illusion that Charlie Ayers referenced — that we are anywhere else but work — has now reached its apex. Remote work might free us from the office in a physical sense, but it’s binding us closer to our employers the same way those free meals did twenty years ago, and corporate-sponsored healthcare did decades prior. Those who benefit will continue to leap ahead within a bubble of wealth, health, and stability. And just like the users on apps built by the tech industry, employees are getting locked into a proprietary platform.
A few years after Google popularized the idea that “food should not be more than 150 steps away" from employees at any time, cities eventually saw the consequences of companies building their own private communities. They pushed back on free food, arguing that the perks were killing local businesses and restaurants. The city of Mountain View passed a law in 2014 effectively preventing Facebook from opening a cafeteria at its headquarters.
The long-term effects of remote work are still unclear, but like all corporate inventions, there will be winners and losers. Wealth will shift, new monopolies will disrupt old ones. It's more important than ever to look up from our screens, look around our communities, and push corporations and governments to help make working conditions safer and more flexible for everyone, not just a select few.
"You're Still Not Working From Home." Anne Helen Petersen on how we think about our jobs.
"One thing I’ve heard over and over since the coronavirus lockdown first started has been, They say I’m an essential worker, but they don’t treat me like one." (Sarah Jaffe, The New Republic)
"A group of 30 female Indian engineers who are members of the Dalit caste and work for Google, Apple, Microsoft, Cisco and other tech companies say they have faced caste bias inside the U.S. tech sector." (Nitasha Tiku, Washington Post)
"'I Would Prefer Not To': The Origins of the White Collar Worker." (From Cubed, by Nikil Saval)
"No policy is ever race-neutral, even if race is nowhere in that policy. There is going to be a differential impact just because of how our society is structured." (Dartunorro Clark, NBC News)
About this Newsletter
Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, currently working on something new. Every week (or so), this newsletter will feature writing about work and creativity, plus five stories that are worth your time.
Photo by Kelly Lacy