A few Saturday’s ago, my random thoughts, urged on by Linda’s prompt and the background image on my laptop, took me into the world of remote work. Beginning in the late 90s, and continuing for about 15 years, we called remote work “telecommuting.” Prior to the mid-90s, we called it a vacation day – as in, if you couldn’t make it to work due to bad weather, school closings, car trouble, or any of a few dozen other reasons, you took the day off – if you could. Some people are still in that situation.
A few days before that post, my friend Mary, wrote a post for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesday prompt titled “Ordinary.” The post was anything but. It was interesting, and as I read it the seeds of this post started to sprout.
It was 5:00 am. I was working at home, collaborating with a colleague (David, you met David here) in England on a programming project that resides on a server in our office in CT. I was trying to get an answer for David before he stopped for lunch. Unfortunately, I ran into a technical problem with the whole ‘remote work’ thing.
By 6:25 am. One of my coworkers, working from home because schools were closed in anticipation of a major snow storm, had solved the problem.
In between the error being discovered, reported and solved, I sent a status update to David, got another cup of coffee, consoled Maddie who was upset by the approaching storm, and read Mary’s blog.
I thought: “Wow! What a day for her to raise the issue of what’s ordinary?”
The working arrangement I described above, IS ordinary. I remember when it wasn’t. On a day like that, when I was the guy solving technical problems, I’d climb into my 4WD pickup and drive through the snow storm to get to work. If I called someone in England, I would make the call as short as possible due to the extremely high cost of an international long-distance call. If I needed help, my coworker would pack up his kid(s) and join me in the office.
That may seem archaic today. Such a working arrangement is beyond the imagination of many of today’s younger workers, certainly the ones in my industry. And yet, I take this ordinary luxury for granted. The day before that storm, I took my laptop home, fully expecting everything to work, just as it did. I expected that any problems that might occur could be resolved without disrupting my plans. A problem did occur, and it was resolved, and it didn’t disrupt.
I don’t feel guilty about my situation. I have worked for over 40 years to help make technology like this ordinary. When I was first asked to make it possible for some of my coworkers to telecommute, it was a difficult and expensive undertaking. It’s easier and less expensive now, but this technology isn’t helping everyone.
As I write this. the Connecticut Legislature is trying to pass a “fair working hours” bill. In the absence of this bill, part-time, often low wage workers leave work not knowing when or even if they will work tomorrow. This situation makes it difficult for them to plan for child care. It makes their weekly wage an uncertain thing and it often prevents them from working at a second job or attending school. It sounds absurd, but from their employers’ point of view, it may be the only way a small operation can stay in business.
I mention “fair working hours” for two reasons. One is to call attention to the ways in which some people, people who are willing to work, are kept among the ranks of the “working poor” because they work where labor is simply another just-in-time commodity. I also mention it because people like me, people who can easily work remotely, might one day find themselves in that same situation – and that day might not be that far in the future.
Today, remote work is a perk, a convenience offered to employees, a way to keep those employees working in the face of a snow storm. Tomorrow, remote work might be the way companies outsource small bits of work that are currently assigned to a full-time employee. Technology workers might find themselves working for multiple employers (none of whom provide benefits), perhaps during a single day, all from a home office in which they pay all the bills.
Many consultants work like this today, but they have specialized skills that are in high demand and command a high hourly rate. In the future, people with ordinary skills that are only needed a day here and a day there, might find themselves being labeled consultants, and they might find themselves among the working poor.
As we look around, we’re starting to see a few signs of spring.