When Work Interferes With Work
The push to return to the office comes with domestic consequences.
In “THE OTHER WORK REMOTE WORKERS GET DONE,” The Atlantic‘s Stephanie H. Murray argues, “Telecommuting allows caregivers to manage a workload that is, if anything, way too big.”
Predicting the future of remote work is hard. On one hand, many American workers really like it and want to be working remotely even more than they are now (though, of course, many workers have never had the option to work from home). And while the amount of work in the U.S. being done remotely is down from its pandemic high, it’s been holding steady near 28 percent for about a year now. In a tight labor market, many employers opted to embrace at least some remote work to help with recruitment and retention.
On the other hand, many employers are getting more vocal about their desire to have employees in the office more often.
The shift seems to reflect a concern long voiced by executives and managers and backed up by some recent research: that remote work is hampering productivity. One study found that data-entry workers who worked remotely in India were 18 percent less productive than their in-office counterparts. Another working paper published in July found that fully remote workers were about 10 percent less productive than their in-person counterparts (though hybrid work seemed to have no significant effect on productivity).
So, employers want their employees to come to work and be productive. Which isn’t surprising!
The appeal of remote work is all too often glossed over as a matter of “quality of life” or “work-life balance.” Those are, of course, important. But that framing also ignores the uncompensated caregiving that Vigil and millions of others provide for America’s young, sick, elderly, and disabled. Their efforts are not just a quality-of-life issue; they’re an enormously important and overlooked part of our economy. For a lot of caregivers, telecommuting allows them to manage a workload that is, if anything, way too big. Remote work, then, isn’t just a question of work-life balance; it’s a question of work-work balance. The traditional conception of “productivity” doesn’t account for this.
Well . . . no. Why would it?
To be sure, there’s a lot of work that takes place inside the home. My wife and I do a lot of it even after outsourcing some of it (weekly housecleaning and fortnightly lawn service). We’ve benefitted tremendously from my wife, and to a much lesser extent me, having the ability to telecommute and manage, for example, school dropoff and pickup. But, of course, that doesn’t accrue to the balance sheet of employers, who are, after all, paying for people’s time during working hours.
For years, feminist economists have complained that the primary methods by which we measure the size and health of the economy leave a whole lot out. GDP, for example, primarily measures goods and services bought and sold in the market economy, excluding those produced by households. Our entire economy hinges on human labor, but the unpaid work that goes into raising a productive laborer is absent from economic indicators. When someone like Vigil leaves their job to care for a family member full-time, they are considered economically inactive. Apart from the money parents and taxpayers spend on children’s care and education, human capital “just sort of pops up” in the national accounts as a fully grown, hard-working citizen, Julie P. Smith, an honorary associate professor at the Australian National University who has written extensively on this topic, told me.
All of this makes for a distorted picture of the economy. Because household production counts for nothing in national accounts, the bump in GDP that results when production shifts into the formal market, such as when a stay-at-home mother enrolls her child in day care and starts a full-time job, is exaggerated. We witnessed the reverse of this during the pandemic—one recent report found that when you account for unpaid household production, the drop in economic activity that occurred during the pandemic was much less severe. This makes sense; a lot of the work previously done by paid laborers didn’t go away—it just shifted into the home. “Instead of going out to a restaurant and eating a meal … a family cooked their own meal in their home. And when they cook their own meal in their home, all of a sudden, they disappear from economic indicators, even though somebody still had to put in the work to, you know, cut the vegetables and cook the meat or fish or whatever it is,” Misty Heggeness, a professor at the University of Kansas who is working on a dashboard aimed at quantifying the care economy, told me. That makes a difference to the restaurant business but not as much to the nation’s productivity as a whole.
These are not novel ideas. Feminists have been talking about the value of unpaid housework for as long as I can remember—going back at least half a century now. And, at some level, the argument has merit: my house is clean and my belly is full regardless of whether I perform the labor myself (as I usually do) or I outsource them to a cleaning service or restaurant (as I occasionally do).
But the reason this obvious fact still hasn’t been accounted for in economic statistics is that this isn’t what the economic statistics are trying to measure.
If I let my housecleaner and lawn service go and perform the labor myself, my house will be roughly as clean and my lawn roughly as kempt. But the people who used to perform those services will now have less money to feed their families and pay their bills. That’s a negative impact on the thing we think of as “the economy.”
Heggeness thinks the lack of comprehensive data on this sort of work is part of why experts took so long to wrap their head around the so-called she-cession. Many assumed that the increased child care brought on by school closures would disproportionately oust mothers from the labor market. It wasn’t until pretty late in the game that it became clear that risk had been overstated. “We’re not good at telling the comprehensive story of the economy, because we completely ignore all the economic activity that is done within homes,” Heggeness said.
Because unpaid activity is, by fucking definition, not economic activity. This is also true outside the home. People who volunteer to be youth softball coaches or to feed people in soup kitchens aren’t measured in the GDP, either. This here blog post is not economic activity. If The Atlantic were to pay me $500 to write a thousand words of nonsense, it would be economic activity.
How we measure—or mismeasure—the economy inevitably influences policy making. “What we measure reflects what we value, and shapes what we do,” Smith and her co-author, Nancy Folbre, wrote in a 2020 paper on the subject. The omission of so much domestic work from economic indicators makes policies that support caregiving look like bad investments. Both breastmilk and formula are suitable sources of nutrition for newborns—but only the latter has any economic value as far as GDP is concerned.
Unless it’s being sold, that’s true. So, for example, if I pay a dollar for a beer, that’s economic value. When I piss the beer out, it’s not. Yet both are liquids! How does that make sense?
If an expansion of paid parental leave allowed more new mothers to breastfeed their kids more and rely on formula less, the economy would “suffer” as a result.
Correct. Because, again, if formula factories shut down—or are less profitable and have to lay off workers—people have less money to buy things. In the economy.
A similar tipping of the scales seems to be playing out in the debate about remote work: The work that the practice is allegedly hampering is overshadowing the work that it enables.
So, there’s no “allegedly” to it. The evidence is pretty clear that most workers do less of the work that they’re being paid to do remotely than they do in the office. And that’s the only work that the employer is interested in measuring.
Speaking for myself, I’m differently productive at home and at the office. I’m more able to do parts of my job as department head at the office. It’s much easier to observe my colleagues’ teaching there than it is remotely. While I could certainly do meetings and other collaborative work via Zoom or Teams, it’s generally more productive to do it in person. On the other hand, I’m much more able to do work that requires intense concentration at the house. Not only are their fewer interruptions but I save 90-plus minutes of commuting time. And, as a bonus, I can do things like laundry and load/unloading the dishwasher at times when I need a mental break.
The most obvious benefit of remote work is that it saves people time commuting. Many American workers sink that extra time into their job—others, and particularly those with kids under 14, devote some of it to caregiving. For Sarah White, who works full-time for a pharmaceutical company, the absence of a commute makes managing her son’s complex medical needs far easier. If she worked in the office, each medical appointment would require multiple trips between home, school, the office, and the doctor. But because her son’s school is three blocks from her home, midday appointments are pretty simple. “I can pop in my car, take him to his appointment, pop him right back to school,” White told me. And she uses slack time throughout her day in a productive manner. “I can throw in laundry and just keep it going … because it’s right next to my office,” she said.
Employers may not like to hear that employees are doing chores on the job, but working in an office doesn’t eliminate downtime—it just restricts how you can use it. Without the option of loading the dishwasher in between meetings, you might chat with a co-worker or check social media. Research backs this up: A survey of workers from June found that those working from home were more likely than their office counterparts to run a personal errand, care for a child, or do chores during the workday—but slightly less likely to play a phone or computer game or read for leisure.
Again, I think it really depends on the nature of one’s job. The more labor-intensive it is, the more likely the workplace is productive. The more thinking-intensive, the more likely remote is more productive.
A subtler point is that when it comes to caregiving, just being nearby is valuable, not because someone needs you at every second but because at any second they might. This is an aspect of caregiving that is all too easy to overlook until something goes wrong. Vigil’s area has seen a string of big storms lately, and she happened to be in the office during a downpour that caused a tree limb to fall in her yard. At home alone, her son panicked. Working from home enables her to ensure that he’s okay—both emotionally and physically—during those sorts of unpredictable events.
If you account for all of the caring that remote work has made possible, it amounts to an increase in productivity with positive implications for the economy. Compelling evidence suggests that remote work is allowing caregivers to remain employed; it may be why labor-force participation for women with kids under 5 has leapfrogged its pre-pandemic rate. It may also allow workers to do more caregiving. Lynn Abaté-Johnson, who wrote a book about the six years she spent caring for her mother who had cancer, told me she could not have taken on such a large role in her mother’s care if she hadn’t been able to work remotely.
So, again, this is quite valuable. That it doesn’t impact “the economy” doesn’t mean it doesn’t have worth. But, surely, accounting for these things isn’t something that businesses should be responsible for financing.
And, as the pandemic made so starkly clear, there’s a huge privilege gap at work. While there would be some shifts in productivity, I could do my job remotely indefinitely. That’s just not true for entire sectors of the workforce. Everything from stocking shelves to pouring concrete to meatpacking to movie making to open heart surgery requires people to be physically present at the workplace.
If concerns about our aging population and declining fertility rate are to be believed, then remote work is exactly the kind of thing the United States ought to be embracing. Studies show the flexibility of remote work may be allowing people to have more kids. And even if telework alone can’t raise the fertility rate, it would at least allow more workers to help care for the elderly. Of course, a rethinking of productivity to include care shouldn’t end with embracing remote work. Many other policies, such as paid family and medical leave, paid sick leave, child allowances or cash support for other unpaid caregivers, and predictable and flexible scheduling practices, could ensure that Americans—especially those who can’t work from home—can care for the people in their lives. Even if that means Americans give a little less of their energy to their employers, the greater investment in the people who make up the nation’s economy is worth it.
So . . . sure. Children, the elderly, the disabled, and others need care and there are societal questions about who should provide and pay for that care. But these are mostly public policy decisions, not questions about employee-employer relations. More flexible working conditions may be part of the solution but, again, that’s not really possible for a whole lot of jobs.