My views on remote work have shifted dramatically over the past few years. The reason stems from a combination of personal experience and an exploration of real-world evidence. As I have spent regular time maintaining this blog and its weekly newsletter, I have thought about this topic frequently and in more depth than most, so it is time to collect my thoughts and present them in a written format.
I hope this post will generate some discussion. Please write to me with your thoughts or leave comments. I’d love to chat in good-faith about this topic further with those who are as deeply interested as me.
Sounding the Alarm on Remote Work
Currently I am not supportive of broad-scale remote work. Given all of the buzz in popular culture and contemporary thought about how remote work provides better work life balance, and increased productivity, it can be hard to find someone who offers a countervailing viewpoint.
Not to alarm you, but I am going to ring some warning bells. A few writers and thinkers have joined me in discussing the negative impacts of work from home arrangements. However, the current prevailing narrative suggests that remote work is an exciting part of a progressive revolution. From the revolution is an evolution that promises to unleash a new era of work-life balance.
It is unfortunate that this narrative has been largely unchallenged. Here is why.
A Work-From-Home Story
Back in October of 2019, I had just been hired as a career advisor at a nationally recognized leader in online, liberal arts, post-secondary education. When I was first hired, several of my work colleagues lived outside of commuting distance to the office. At the time, from the employer’s perspective, remote flexibility was a benefit. Staff with familiarity and competence in their role were rewarded. After 6 months of tenure, newbies were allowed 1 remote day per week. After 9 months, a second day was awarded.
At about the 3 month mark of my time in the role, I felt comfortable and believed that I was capable of working from home, so I became critical of this policy. I spoke with colleagues who also agreed that newbies like me should have more flexibility in this area.
I’ll Show You!
I wanted to work from home. After the pandemic hit, I set out to prove my conviction about much more productive I would be from my home office. To make my point, I decided to compare the work metrics that I tracked for myself between the in-office period and the from-home period after Covid-19.
‘My goal was to have a conversation with my manager. In that conversation, I would present these data. The data would show how much more productive I was when I worked from home. By doing this, I could advocate for myself and the rest of the department to remain remote Once Covid-19 pandemic restrictions were lifted and the world of work went back to normal. Instead, many people like myself ended up with this new normal.”
My goal was to have a conversation with my manager. In that conversation, I would present these data. The data would show how much more productive I was when I worked from home. By doing this, I could advocate for myself and the rest of the department to remain remote Once Covid-19 pandemic restrictions were lifted and the world of work went back to normal.
Instead, many people like myself ended up with this new normal.’
Data Don’t Lie
The data were unconvincing.
*Note that the numbers from June of 2020 were skewed because the entire team engaged in a required, outbound call campaign.
As you can see, around the same time I started working remotely, my call volume dropped precipitously.
Granted, some of this decrease in total calls is a natural part of the role. When you start as a career advisor, you first need to inform students that you exist. To do so, you have to call them, talk to them, and find out if they want career assistance. In the beginning, you have no one to work with so you have plenty of time to make calls.
Conversely, as you interact with individuals and form relationships, you often set multiple appointments. The conversations can last a while. Through this process, over time, you typically have fewer calls with longer conversations.
Given this, one might expect that if my call volume dropped, perhaps it was because I was spending more time on the phone helping people. This could be a sign of productivity that would explain the lost call volume.
Over time, I did have more frequent long and robust discussions but it did not move the needle on my talk time, or at least not by much.
If my talk time remained relatively flat, and my call volume decreased, one might ask what I was doing with my days? Was I reviewing more resumes and cover letters? Well, not really.
If my call volume dropped, I wasn’t talking on the phone more, and I wasn’t reviewing more documents, just what was I doing?
The cynic might say that I was doing a worse job and I might agree. Perhaps I accidentally and unwittingly became a quiet quitter. Maybe unconscious quiet quitting should become the next major work-related cultural trend?
The good news is that this won’t happen. The bad news is that a far more annoying trend will almost certainly emerge soon.
Make sure you’re subscribed to my ‘weekly wave’ newsletter to stay informed on all the important work-related trends.
It soon became clear that I wasn’t slacking. I was distracted and it was because I was working from home.
I was FAR less productive and as I became more honest with myself about the situation, I finally acknowledged that I felt less productive too. The first seeds of doubt in my mind were sown on alleged greatness of the work-from-home movement.
The conversation I wanted to have with my manager never happened. Despite my good-faith effort to show through my own data that I was a more effective employee from home, I had to keep that data to myself. The proof I sought was simply not there.
It took some time for this cognitive dissonance to settle into my brain. Could others be experiencing this too? Perhaps others have the same experience but still choose to advocate for work from home for other reasons. Maybe people are afraid to speak out because they do not want to be outed as different.
For me, it was not just the numbers. I could tell qualitatively that my daily execution during work hours was not the same. People say that being in the office is distracting because of all of the interruptions and water cooler conversations. This is true. However, I was far more distractible from home.
I am just one person. My story speaks only for me. However, I highly doubt that I am alone in this experience.
Presumably, some people are in fact more productive from home than in the office. If this is the case, there must be certain factors that predict success in a remote environment. Conversely, some of the hindrances to success in a remote work environment could also be somewhat forseeable.
Here is a list of a few predictors that likely influence any employee’s level of remote-work success.
|Successful Work from Home||Inadvertent ‘Quiet Quitting‘|
|Experience in role||Inexperience in role|
|No young children at home||Young children at home|
|Ability to focus without distraction||Susceptible to distraction|
|Married, living with a spouse||Unmarried, living with a roommate|
|Satisfied with family and/or personal relationships||Unsatisfied with family and/or personal relationships|
|No mental illness diagnosis||Has a diagnosed mental illness|
Let’s unpack what happened when Covid-19 pandemic policy measures forced millions of office employees to suddenly work entirely from home.
(1) Many women left the workforce out of necessity to care for children who were forced to stay home. Those who worked while raising young children at home, could not have possibly been as productive. Anyone who has raised a young child knows that there are some things that simply cannot be multi-tasked. Young children and multi-tasking work about as well as a rider petting a bull at a rodeo to get the animal to calm down so you can go about your business.
(2) People who were able to perform their jobs at home ‘hunkered down’ and turned inward. We were told that we had to. We consumed more news (it sure was toxic) and created our own bubbles of thought, in isolation. Our political partisanship and ideological tribalism worsened. Society became even more fragmented than it already was.
(3) Those who still had to go to a physical location to perform their work resented those who had the privilege of working from home. Conversely, many people who worked remotely, including almost the entire journalist class, openly wondered why the rest of the population did not just stay home.
(4) Worst of all, as we are finding out now, the young, unmarried, and people without children, suffered immensely. One reason: prior to the pandemic, these folks got most of their social interaction from coworkers and from meeting up with friends. Overnight, this was all taken away.
Does anyone seriously wonder why mental illness spiked during the isolation and confinement of the pandemic? Now the work-from-home activists want to make these arrangements permanent with their version of a ‘new normal.’
For me, at the time, I was living with my girlfriend (now wife) who also worked from home. It was difficult for us in many ways. I can only imagine how this went for people with roommates they hardly knew, for those with unruly pets, or with noisy neighbors in apartment complexes. The hardest hit of all, were almost certainly the parents with children who now needed to be educated at home.
Anyone who is dialed into the conversation around the evolving workplace has heard the same standard talking points: Workers want remote work, flexibility, work-life balance, etc. They also contend that if companies want to remain competitive and attract the best talent, they need to allow remote work. Many will also argue that employees are just as productive when remotely, if not more.
This whole conversation has become nauseating to listen to in the media. Most of the people who advance this narrative either want to work from home themselves, or they are already well-established in their careers.
For example, journalists and writers who explore this topic have a biased vantage point. Journalism, writing, being a pundit, or a thought leader is often a ‘work from anywhere’ job with the occasionally cool perk that you can travel to various locations, often at your leisure. The average worker looks at these people as the privileged class that they truly are, and rightfully so.
Further, those who can afford subscriptions to things like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are also disproportionately more likely to be well-established in their careers and on solid financial footing.
What about all of the others? Who is speaking on behalf of those who are struggling the most?
Top Reasons to Scrutinize the Work-From-Home Movement
Here are 5 reasons to scrutinize those who are most enthusiastic about the pro-work-from-home movement. From my research, most of these have been curiously absent from the broader discussion on the topic.
- Not everyone can work remotely
To someone who cannot work remotely because of their job type, this whole discussion sounds entitled and out of touch. It may even sound elitist. Popular culture already scoffs at the day-laborer, the fast food worker, the garbage man, and others who ‘work with their hands’ instead of their ‘minds.’
There are many workplaces where working from home simply is not an option. Take a hospital for example. Much of the administrative staff may be able to perform their jobs from home, but the doctors, nurses, and receptionists who greet the patients cannot. The same is true of many lawyers and most contractors who repair things. Not all work can be done from home.
When we are reminded that not everyone has the luxury of working remotely, the utopian future that is painted as the ‘future of work’ or some sort of forward-thinking, progressive advancement of humanity at least runs into a hurdle, if not a wall. At the very least, clearly everyone is not included. To a movement that tends to care a lot about including everyone, this is quite the oversight.
When people imply or say things like, “I have a right to work from home,” or “modern companies shouldn’t need people to come into the office” it can sound downright condescending to those with jobs that must be performed in person.
- Remote work is absolutely crushing young people
For centuries, people met their friend groups and future spouses through in-person interactions. Work is one of the most common places for these sorts of relationships to form. When we take that away from young people, we should not be surprised that they feel isolated, lonely, and more mentally unwell.
Is remote work going to improve their lives? Likely not. There should be nothing surprising here. People who are married are generally happier than unmarried. Parents with children in the home also tend to show higher levels of joy and happiness as long as they are able to meet their adult responsibilities, including having enough money. Other studies have also shown that happiness tends to decline in early adulthood before increasing again around the age of 40.
Young people are historically and obviously less likely to be married, have children, or be 40 years or older. This cohort of the population tends to suffer worse mental health outcomes, especially when isolated from friends and other in-person social ties.
Recent data also show that an overall sample of remote workers, are less mentally well than those who work hybrid or in person. The data also show that young people are disproportionately affected.
- Career Growth
Ask yourself, do you believe that life is as meaningful at the age of 20, 25, or 30 years old, or is it more meaningful when you have advanced in your career and maybe developed meaning in your personal life through things like marriage, children, or religious affiliation?
Young people have a right to feel lost. They are young and likely do not know who they are yet. Even if they think they do, they likely do not. For me, I didn’t figure it out until I got married at 31 years of age. Older people who have already been through their youth should listen to what the young are saying, but they should also use the wisdom of their lived experience to set an example and provide responsible guidance.
How does a young person build the necessary career capital at work to get promoted when you’re a single, young person working in a messy, noisy apartment somewhere far away from your employer’s headquarters? This question has yet to be answered or even addressed by the work-from-home activists. Is only knowing your colleagues through Zoom and performing work duties while wearing pajamas for most of the day really a viable pathway toward success?
There is no proof that this sort of arrangement is capable of meaningfully advancing anyone’s career. If anything, this seems more like a trap where the well-connected employees who already know each other from the pre-pandemic days when they were all in the office maintain an edge when promotions are discussed. Those who work remotely are on the outside looking in with little leverage or ability to get noticed. How does an employee like this advance? This is a question that will need an answer.
If the next few years and decades that follow confirm what the preliminary evidence suggests, young people are in for a serious struggle. There is little doubt that the challenge of building a career foundation in this sort of disempowering environment is significant. It may even be an insurmountable task. In the future, the economic and social consequences could be severe.
- Mental illness is the new normal
Every time I hear someone say “the new normal” I want to scream. First of all, no one elected anyone who uses this phrase to re-engineer normal human behavior for the rest of humanity. Further, no one knows what the new normal will look like. So far, it sounds like a very depressing place.
Maybe those who talk like this believe that little is lost when personal and professional relationships move online. But stacks upon stacks of evidence directly contradict this assertion.
Jean Twenge, an author and college professor at San Diego State University wrote a whole book about the consequences of the modern life that teenagers are facing. In the book, she makes it very clear that the way young people interact with each other is transitioning from primarily in-person, to online and this is having a negative impact on mental health, especially among teenage girls.
Additionally, in February of 2023, the CDC released a bombshell update on the perilous state of mental health in US teenagers, again, especially when it comes to girls. It has always been difficult to be a teenager and especially a teenage girl, but in 2011, 36% of teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless. 10 years later, that number skyrocketed all the way to 57%. During the same period, boys saw a less severe but also meaningful increase from 21% to 29%.
My willingness to ring the alarm about the current trend could be premature. It could be unnecessarily alarmist. Perhaps, all of this is simply explained by more people feeling comfortable enough to seek help and to acknowledge the existence of mental illnesses that were always there. If this is the case, the numbers may simply unveil a reality that was always there.
However, I would not bet on it.
On one hand, it is great that people are getting the help they need. On the other hand, I am concerned because it does not appear to be working. If more mental health awareness were the answer, one would expect that there would be some evidence of improving outcomes by now.
If we are not there yet, when will we see the trend turn around? At some point, the positive results have to come. We are still waiting. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of watching people suffer. Most of all, I’m sick of them suffering alone in the bubbles that we have created for ourselves to escape the pain of the “real world.”
What we feed our minds matters.
- Distraction is everywhere
Does it seem like everyone, everywhere is vying for your attention via advertisements on television, your smart phone, and on social media? In recent years, the advertising industry has become more capable of capturing attention from potential customers, with improved targeting through advanced technology.
It is not just advertisers. The news and entertainment media have the same incentive. Without your attention, none of these people can make money. The same is true for entertainers, TikTok users, Instagram personalities, self-help gurus, political pundits, providers of lifestyle advice and more.
When we feel in control of our lives, we are more immune to distraction. When we remain focused, negativity is less likely to creep into our thought patterns. Fortunately, if we are able to choose traction over distraction, our laser-like focus on what we care about the most can ward off a lot of unhappiness.
Some Benefit, Others Do Not
The most cruel form of punishment is not crucifixion, waterboarding, or other methods that inflict tortuous, physical pain. The worst form of punishment is solitary confinement.
The lesson is clear. When are you happiest? I know that I feel the happiest, when I am enjoying meaningful relationships with friends and family. When I am the saddest, I am in isolation or in my own head, ruminating about something that makes me anxious.
What works? Relationships with others
What doesn’t? Isolation and negativity.
Remote work may be good for some people, namely those who are already well-established in their careers. For this population, it could optimize life, provide maximum work-life balance, and the same or greater productivity.
Lost in the shuffle are young people. These are the folks whose voices are not being heard and their struggle is not being understood. Many youth may not even know the suffering they are undergoing because too few people are talking about their isolation and the clear role that remote work has in exacerbating their mental health problems.
If we short-circuit our analysis the way most prominent western thought leaders have, things might work out okay. There may be no need for outsized alarm. However, we also could be destroying an entire generation through sheer ignorance and misdirected empathy. At the very least, we ought to tread more thoughtfully as we move forward.
Few sane people people argue that more time on social media is better for the mind. Yet many of the same people who are concerned about the impact that social media is having on teenagers accept a strange, blanket assumption that moving professional work entirely online cannot have a similarly negative impact on young, adult workers. In one case, social media replaces in-person friendships. In the other, online work replaces human-to-human, in person connection.
I know of no compelling reason to believe that in-person connection can be easily replaced.
The Need for Deeper Analysis
Does the evidence actually show that the outcomes of mass-scale remote work are as good for the average, young worker as the journalist-class make them out to be?
It is not normal to be mentally ill. It is not normal to be unhappy. It is not normal to be isolated from fellow human beings. A ‘new normal’ in which influential thought leaders attempt to re-engineer the social fabric of the human species should be met with scrutiny. As more data continues to show that mental health is worsening, that scrutiny should intensify.
Fortunately, the scrutiny I have outlined here is destined to grow. Unfortunately, it will take continued suffering before enough people notice to make a difference. How many young people need to suffer in isolation before we stop with this charade? Work from home does not work for everyone. A new normal that ignores our most impressionable and vulnerable adults is a slap in the face to the human progress that has come from generations before us.
It’s time to get deep and think more analytically. It is time for more empathy. Our so-called ‘new normal’ might just be a destructive, raging fire that cannot be contained.
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6 thoughts on “The ‘New Normal’ is not Normal”
Two big takeaways here: WFH is not “normal” and it’s not for everyone/every job. That doesn’t mean it can’t work, many people worked remote before the pandemic, but it was always the exception, not the rule. I’m a designer, I can do my job from home very easily, but I’m also 10 years into my career. When I was just coming out of college I would be completely lost.
I love working remotely but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have drawbacks. Employees and employers need to decide if what works for them. Some company cultures just work better in an office setting. Others may have excellent automated systems and could benefit from sourcing talent from a larger pool with remote positions.
Although everything changed overnight in March 2020, we don’t have to keep all of those changes and call it “normal”. We can, and must, evaluate how to move forward rather than getting stuck on a trendy solution and ignoring the problems that come with it. You’ve outlined many important things to consider, and I agree it needs further discussion.
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