With the pandemic slowly receding into the rearview mirror and earning an average of…hmmm, let’s see…0 out of 5 stars on Yelp for, and I quote, “sucking ass,” now seems to be a good time to sit back and reflect on why none of us want to ever do this ever again.
But even though the pandemic was (and in many parts of the world, still is) a horrible experience for everyone, there are a few rays of positive change that managed to sneak their way through the gloomy, COVID-infected storm-clouds.
I’m talking, of course, about all the socially accepted day drinking.
No wait, that’s for another article. What I meant to say is the explosion of remote work.
Working from home was a huge shock for many people, and I think it’s safe to say that when they got the email in March 2020 to stay home for the next few days, nobody expected to be out office for over a year. I got a chance to peek inside my old office during the lockdowns and it was like a scene out of a science fiction movie. People’s desks still had old cups of coffee on them, their calendars were still set to the last day of in-office work, and it was like the normally bustling cubicle farm had this weird invisible fog of silence shrouding the entire floor. It was real creepy, is what I’m trying to say here.
Well, those days are coming to an end.
Companies are starting to recall people back to the office. Normalcy will mean being able to go back into a restaurant or a seeing a concert without wearing a full haz-mat suit anymore, but it also means good-bye to wearing half a suit to work, not needing to do a morning commute, or masturbating furiously during a Zoom meeting (looking at you, Jeff Toobin).
That being said, some people aren’t willing to give all that up and want to continue working from home even after the pandemic is just a distant, red-wine-stained memory.
So how will companies react to this new dynamic? CEO’s by and large want their workers back in the office. And at least some workers want to the continue working from home because they can now use their dreaded commute time for, you know, actual work. But corporate America being what it is, I’m sure they’ll work out a compromise that will leave everybody happy…
Oh wait, nope. They’re threatening to cut remote worker’s pay. Super.
[Google] recently announced they’re planning to cut remote workers’ salaries by a quarter. Reuters revealed that workers with longer commutes to the Google office would receive the highest pay cuts.Google Plans To Cut Remote Workers’ Salaries By 25%, Forbes
Well, I’m sure they have their reasons, right? Riiiight…
If you can’t tell, I’m just a little skeptical of their rationale for doing this, but you know what? Let’s explore some of the arguments for and against slashing pay for remote workers and see if we can make sense of it, shall we?
Pro: Cutting Remote Worker’s Pay helps women
No, wait, where are you going? Sit back down. They’re being serious here. Try to keep a straight face while I explain it.
OK here’s how the theory goes.
Prior to the pandemic, remote work was heavily favoured by women, as they usually have to shoulder the higher workload of child care, housework, and the burden of taking care of elderly parents. And while everyone was forced into remote work over the last year-and-a-half, economists are predicting that women will be the predominant demographic demanding continued access to working-from-home going forward.
So, the theory goes, if companies continue to encourage remote work, they will be encouraging the gender pay gap that has long plagued women in the workforce.
And before you get mad at me, this is coming from the same Forbes article that I quoted above. Check it:
Remote work intensifies gender inequality across the spectrum by reinforcing domestic roles, and stalling women’s earning potential and prospects for career advancement-many of which are positively correlated with in-person work.Google Plans To Cut Remote Workers’ Salaries By 25%, Forbes
Riiiiight. So companies expect us to believe that they care so much about women worker’s rights that the solution is to…cut their pay even further? To encourage them to come back into the physical office so that they can compete with their male colleagues while doing nothing to alleviate the actual problems that are keeping them at home in the first place?
Yeah, good thing FIRECracker isn’t writing this article, because it would just be a string of capital-letter filled expletives from here on in.
So let’s go ahead and toss this argument on the “Heaping pile of bullshit” pile and move on, shall we?
Pro: Remote Work is Bad For Innovation
Here’s one that’s a little less steeped in bullshit.
The theory, which originated from tech CEO’s like Steve Jobs and Marissa Mayer, was that a big driver of innovation comes from co-workers bumping each other in the halls or the break room and casually discussing what they were working on, and sometimes the random collision of ideas creates new innovation and, potentially, new products. Remote work flies in the face of this because people can’t randomly bump into each other. Hence, the argument goes, remote work is bad for innovation, so people need to get their keisters back into the cubicle farm.
OK, I can kinda understand this one, because that’s what working at my old engineering job was like. I would often bounce ideas off my friends and co-workers, scribbling on each other’s whiteboards as we worked out ideas for solving whatever engineering challenge we were working on, and vice versa.
My problem with using this as an excuse to ban remote work is that it puts the onus of innovation completely on the workers and none on the managers. You say that your company is the leader in high-tech and innovation? Well then prove it by coming up with a way for workers to innovate without being in the same physical location!
The really funny thing is that the companies that are proposing these pay cuts for remote workers like Google and Microsoft are the very companies that specialize in software to help remote teams communicate with each other. Google built a suite of workplace collaboration tools called Google Workspace, and Microsoft has a tool literally called Microsoft Teams. Gee, if only a solution to this very difficult remote work problem existed on your own servers already.
So while I understand this argument, I don’t sympathize. Because these same tech companies that claim remote work impedes collaboration already have the means and the expertise to fix this. They just don’t want to.
Pro: Companies Have to Pay More in High-Cost Areas
But wait, companies say, we’ve long ago had to pay more to attract talent for those who live in high cost areas like New York City or San Francisco. If you no longer live in those high cost areas, why should we continue to pay you a NYC salary if you now live in Mexico?
OK, I get that. When I was visiting our San Jose office my eyes would often bulge at just how damned expensive things are in Southern California. Houses there were unaffordable decades ago and going out to a restaurant cost an arm and a leg. Even highly paid senior engineers were living with each other as roommates and carpooling to work to save money. If I had to move there for work, I certainly wouldn’t do it for the same salary as I made in Canada.
Of all the arguments I’ve read about for cutting remote worker’s pay, this one makes the most sense. If you were paid a premium to live in a high cost area, why should the company continue paying your inflated salary if you move to small town, USA?
Con: Companies are paying for skill, not location
However, you can also see why this would stick in the craw of many remote workers. In the post-pandemic economy, companies are paying workers for their skills and output, not their location. If I’m doing the exact same job, working the exact same position, and my productivity hasn’t suffered from working from home, why should I be forced back into the daily grind of $25 breakfast burritos and endless traffic jams just to keep my current salary?
Central to the question of how much remote workers deserve to get paid is how much of a worker’s expenses should factor into their compensation. Because if moving to a cheaper area means they should get paid less, should those engineer co-workers of mine who decided to rent a house together be paid less as well since they found a way to reduce their expenses through creative living arrangements? And conversely, does that mean that if I’m bad with my money and spend like crazy, should I be paid more? Where do you draw the line?
Con: Remote Workers Already Save You Money
The truth is, we can argue the issue of remote worker salaries from a philosophical standpoint forever and never get anywhere. But if the strongest argument for cutting the pay of remote workers is financial (i.e. Companies need to pay more for workers in high-cost areas), the strongest counter-argument of keeping their pay the same is also financial.
And that is: Remote workers already save companies money.
If you don’t come into the office, you don’t take up space. That means you don’t need a desk, you don’t need a computer, you don’t need to supply as many snacks or drinks in the break room, and if enough people do it, the company could downsize their office and slash their rent, heating, and utility costs.
When FIRECracker was working, she spent some of that time as a contractor rather than a full-time employee. And as we all know, contractors aren’t entitled to the same benefits like health care or pensions as other full-timers. To compensate for that, contractors would get paid more per hour to entice them to take the job.
Adopting that already commonly accepted practice to this situation, remote workers should actually get paid more than in-person workers for exactly the same reason. Companies are saving money by hiring remote workers, so they should pay the employee more to offset part of those savings. It’s only fair, right?
The fact that nobody is (yet) asking for a pay raise to be remote, and simply asking that their pay remain unchanged is already a massive concession from remote workers to their corporate overlords. And yet, not only are those corporate overlords not happy with this offer, they want more. They want the savings from your empty cube and they want to pay you less. How is that even remotely fair?
These last 18 months have been tough for everyone, and I get both sides of the remote work debate. I get the desire for companies to restore things back to the way things were. But I also get how typing on a laptop on a beach in Thailand is pretty freaking sweet.
You know who the pandemic hasn’t been tough for, though? Tech companies’ stock price.
If remote work truly had a detrimental effect on productivity or innovation, you would expect profits of these big tech companies would have taken a dive in March 2020 and never recovered. Instead, we saw this…
Google’s stock price has been on a pretty much uninterrupted tear after April 2020. If there were any indications that remote work was bad for the company, it’s certainly not reflected in the stock price. In fact, a study run by Stanford showed that remote workers are more productive, less stressed, and happier than their in-office counterparts.
So tech companies like Google are finding themselves in a strange situation where they’re making more money, yet their employees are happier and more productive. So of course their first reaction is to say “We’ve got to put a stop to that.”
After spending 5 years as a digital nomad, I believe remote work is the wave of the future, especially for fields like software engineering or writing. It has the potential to transform the nature of work for the better, and doing so while saving the company money. And thanks to the pandemic, companies have realized this too.
And all they have to do to harness the power of remote work and keep the party going for their stock price is to, just this once, not be a dick to their employees.
Is that too much to ask?
What do you think? Should remote workers be allowed to keep their salaries or should they be forced back to the office? Let’s hear it in the comments below!
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