How We Work Has Changed, And Changed Us

Charlie Harper

Tuesday, August 30th, 2022

It’s time again to celebrate Labor Day. Like many of our holidays, it’s roots and intention are often forgotten or ignored. It’s a three-day weekend, and our semi-official end of summer.

The end of summer declaration, or course, gets competition from the beginning of school, which for some Georgia public school students occurred at the end of July, and the autumnal equinox which is still almost a month out. We will break this tie by noting that the University of Georgia begins its fall schedule on September 3rd, in the middle of Labor Day weekend. Thus, sometime between kickoff and packing up from any Labor Day trips or cookouts, it’s OK to call it fall. But I digress.

Labor has once again become an interesting policy topic, though the interest level of many wanes as soon as it is labeled a policy topic. Let’s pretend I didn’t just do that, and just talk about what “working” now means in our post-Covid shutdown world.

The “Work from Home” trend was put on steroids and shot out of a cannon when we closed our economy to “flatten the curve” in the spring of 2020. Now more than two years later, we have some pushing to get back to “normal”, some wanting to perpetuate the present, and others – much fewer – understanding that we never go back to the way things were, and things never stay the same. We can only move forward, owning the circumstances we have now, but armed with the knowledge we have gained over time.

What we know now is that many jobs can be done from anywhere – not just home. We also know that many jobs require the worker to be physically present. The result is putting a chasm between those who have to report to a job, and those who have to remember to put on pants if they plan to stand up during a Zoom call.

This new landscape presents both opportunities and challenges. Among the challenges is that it is now even easier to “disappear” people, as we’ve been doing on social media to those with different opinions for a decade. Those in the Work From Anywhere caste no longer have to see how things are done for them. Many goods and services just show up at their door or in their inbox, with little to no direct human interaction at all.

Without thinking about it, it becomes easy for those of us who work behind keyboards to forget how many workers still have to show up. Someone has to make sure our lights come on and our faucets flow, our food is planted and gets from farm to our tables, and that when we dial 911 there are folks still willing to arrive at our place of need.

Need an example of this unintentional disappearing of those who keep it all going? A large number of my friends from across all spectrums posted something similar during the initial shutdown to the effect of “While no one is working and driving, why don’t we get all the repaving and road work done?”.

It was a joke, and no one posting it meant any harm, but who exactly was supposed to be doing all of this road work while “all of us” were staying at home? It was just those people that we didn’t know, and were taking for granted.

With the supply chain issues and labor shortages, most Americans have become acutely aware of the delicate art our functioning economy has become. And yet, too many of us have begun to take for granted our ability to distance ourselves from others when we want, but still demand those in human contact, front line positions be there when we want or need them.

It’s not all rosy these days for the Work From Anywhere crowd. Larger companies are still trying to figure out how to get the collaboration and mentoring of younger workers when they don’t know where their workers are.

Others are starting to figure out that some of their workers who have become out of sight and out of mind can also be off the payroll. Job cuts seem to be coming at many of the tech companies that were the tip of the spear on the decision to decentralize their work force.

One of the benefits of having a job that requires a physical presence is that the employer and customers have a general idea of who is working and producing. Those who have taken the Work From Anywhere mode to phone it in might want to rapidly consider ensuring they continue to justify their existence and their value add to their employers.