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Reblogged:The Looming Backlash Against Telecommuting

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In City Journal appears "The Dark Side of Remote Work," by Hyon Chu, author of the serial Digital Agency. After briefly sketching how well all the remote staffing prompted by the pandemic has worked out for some companies, Chu issues an old warning with a technological twist:

Image by Tobias Tullius, via Unsplash, license.
Covid-19 has provided the perfect context for large corporations to concentrate their power and resources. As businesses across the U.S. suffer economically from shutdown policies, larger firms have made financial gains. A sharp increase in unemployment has weakened the power of the labor force, and many industries are exchanging full-time, benefitted employees for as-needed contractors. Before we uncritically champion these new remote-work policies, we should proceed with caution. Many who currently dream of working remotely from the beaches of Thailand may find themselves replaced by a Thai contractor. [bold added]
While we're at it, think of all the jobs we'd have if we replaced backhoes with hand spades, or outlawed robots and jacked up tariffs to the point that Americans became competitive for unskilled factory labor!

To any company thinking of dumping most of its American office workers, I say, Please, go ahead and be the Guinea pig! Let me know how meetings go when most of the attendees aren't native speakers of English. Or how your brainstorming for an American market goes with people who have never stepped foot here.

This isn't to deny that some jobs (or parts of jobs) -- usually the ones that are very boring or require little skill -- go the way of the dodo when technology arrives. Rather, we should welcome any new means of freeing up time for people to do more interesting and fulfilling work. Nor is it to knock people who had to learn English as a second language or non-Americans, but to highlight a couple of the kinds of factors on top of training and experience that limit just how ... remote ... remote work can be.

My best guess is that, if governments can resist the urge to "fix" this non-problem, the same kinds of jobs -- like working in a boiler room -- few Americans would want anyway will be the ones to go overseas. This will make American goods cheaper for Americans by lowering costs for those companies, and it will provide opportunity for those who want it and may otherwise not have it. In other words, a win-win, as all trades are -- and a repeat of industrial history, only in non-manual labor.

What worries me, aside from the pessimism in the article sounding all-too-typical today, is the lip service to "labor" and the disparagement of contracting. These two cultural/political currents are already posing a mortal threat to independent contracting, as witness California's sickening AB-5 -- which threatens dreams and livelihoods alike, as well as the franchise business model -- and which the Democratic ticket wishes to make national policy.

Remote office work has its problems, but enabling more people to live where they want, or companies to lower costs aren't among them. The kinds of government responses we are likely to get if some complain enough will, from our experience with AB-5, be counterproductive, to say the very least.

-- CAV

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