Remote work vs the costs of commuting

Another reason to favor remote work is that the alternative – commuting – is expensive in every possible way. And the bulk of commuting costs are borne by employees. 

The purely economic costs are easy enough to quantify: individual commuters must spend money on cars – very expensive items that may be used for only two trips a day, the rest of the time uselessly parked – with all their attendant costs and fuel, or public transport. Infrastructure must be built and maintained. There are environmental costs. And so on. Some companies offer commuter benefits to help defray these monetary costs, but these don’t help with the considerable personal costs of commuting.

Remote work: In any multinational, someone is always remote

There is and always has been an element of remote work in every multinational corporation (even small ones). When a company is globally distributed, its employees are rarely or never all in the same place at the same time.

People learn to deal with this. It means strange hours sometimes, and in the past meant  travel (though that is now difficult). Remote collaboration can always be done better, and we all have more to learn and invent about this way of working, but many businesses have for decades been working effectively with far-flung colleagues (some of my Sun Microsystems colleagues spoke about managing globally distributed teams at GHC 2009). Somehow, teams do manage to thrive and innovate across international borders. 

Remote work: The real estate factor

As part of my regular commute, I used to drive past the Nvidia HQ building while it was still under construction. No one flying in or out of San Jose airport could miss Apple’s giant donut, completed around the same time. Facebook bought the (already large) Sun Microsystems campus ten years ago, and added the world’s largest open plan office as part of a suite of new buildings across the road. Last I heard, Google was still going ahead with plans to build a big new campus in “downtown” San Jose, and Amazon continued constructing new buildings in Seattle even as it was one of the first companies to tell its staff to work from home last year.

How does all this affect remote work? My suspicion is that, the more a company is invested (both financially and otherwise) in big, gaudy real estate, the less likely it is to support remote work for its employees. It’s hard to justify billions spent buying prime land in some of the world’s most expensive locations, and more billions spent building gigantic monuments to executive hubris upon that land, if you’re now allowing all that to stand empty. 

Remote work (or lack of it) is a diversity issue

As the primary caregivers of their children, homes, and often their aging parents as well, women benefit greatly from the flexibility that remote work can offer – simply not having to commute every day can be a major timesaver. “Hybrid” working models, where employees are expected to be in an office one to three days a week instead of five, can facilitate this. But that model assumes that you’re still able to live within commuting distance of your office, which is not always the case.

In a heterosexual couple, even if both spouses work, it is typically the woman who bends her career to that of her husband, staying with or following him to where his work is, even if that limits her own job options. This often makes economic sense because he is also the higher earner in the family. But it’s a classic Catch-22: As long as the family is prioritizing his career, she’s not likely to become the higher earner. (It may not help if she does: there was a point in my first marriage when I was earning three times my husband’s salary, but he still refused to move to Silicon Valley so that I could pursue my career. And studies show that, when women earn more than their male partners, domestic strife, violence, and divorce become more prevalent.)

Remote work, in good times and in bad

I began working from home in 1993, from Italy, for a California company. Other remote experiences have included working in San Jose for Ericsson (HQ in Sweden), and working for AWS (HQ in Seattle) from my home in San Jose, and now from Australia. 

In some ways, I wish I had spent more of my working years in  a “normal” office routine. Working intensely side by side every day, with people you like and respect, is a fantastic feeling, and at times I’ve had that and enjoyed it. But other times workplaces went toxic, so that going into the office every day became a torment to be dreaded. I’ve also had working from home situations go bad, and at those times I dreaded getting up to face my computer every day, even if I didn’t have to directly face the people who were making my life hell.

Often, remote work was the best option available to me. When my Italian employer moved most of the company to the US and then sold out to a US company, continuing in that job was the best paid and most interesting work I could have while still living with my family in Milan.