Is remote work the start of a new class struggle?

Jul 05, 2023

3 mins

Is remote work the start of a new class struggle?
David BlayLab expert

Journalist, consultant in teleworking, lecturer and podcast host.

During the pandemic, many people working on-site jobs or close to the general public were unable to continue. Some workers, like waiters and bartenders, were forced to reflect upon their situation… or, perhaps more accurately, it drove them to address a whole host of issues they hadn’t dared to confront before.

As a result, a significant number of people decided to change careers: partly driven by precarious economic conditions, and partly by a quest for better work-life balance. What’s more, in various countries around the world, many people simply didn’t want to return to the hospitality industry. Restaurants had to increase wages and reduce opening hours (or even opening days) in order to retain the already difficult-to-find talent.

But many participators in the Big Quit did so with the aim to integrate digitalization into their careers. That is to say, pivoting to the 60% of professions that can be carried out with just a computer and a phone.

Fast-forward to today, and we know that remote and hybrid work hasn’t only brought more freedom and flexibility to workers, but also social resentment. Just like artificial intelligence, remote work has drastically changed the way we operate on a daily basis. Work habits, just like any tradition, are difficult to reshape. The result is another layer of polarization in an already divided society.

“Some people have lost their jobs and reckon they won’t be able to get trained up — due to issues related to knowledge, financial means or age — in order to ultimately cross over,” says Pavel Ramirez, a journalist specializing in sustainability and employment and editor at Lider ESG. “This generates fear towards the future job market and also resentment towards those who have taken the plunge. Remote working has divided various sectors because it doesn’t just affect who can and can’t, it also affects the companies who decide whether to implement it or not.”

His words are echoed by a study by Eurofound which analyzed the impact of pandemic-driven labor changes in Europe over the past three years. The study concluded that these new situations can be perceived as a new form of social privilege rather than progress in areas such as increased leisure time.

And it makes sense: the report highlights that nearly 75% of the highest-paid people in society can work remotely while only 5% of the lowest-paid workers have this option. These findings mark such a stark contrast that the people behind the study have publicly called for policymakers around the world to ensure that both ends of the spectrum have equal rights. Interestingly though, the former group can sometimes be negatively affected, too, regularly putting in longer hours.

As mentioned, Covid reshaped the lives of many people who simply had a habitual relationship to their jobs or were unable to transition to more favorable conditions. Nonetheless, there are still many professions where remote work might never be possible. Those include healthcare providers, who were so essential during the crisis and remain so today; it includes agricultural workers, who play a central part in restoring the equilibrium of our planet; and it includes logistical workers who will only become evermore crucial in our globalized world. These jobs, despite being labeled “essential” during the hardship of the last few years, aren’t typically well-paid or considered prestigious, and none of that has changed in the wake of the pandemic.

Even within individual companies, these tensions are difficult to defuse. In a workplace where accountants, administrators and warehouse personnel all work together, the former two have the ability to enjoy flexibility while the latter does not. Sometimes, managers see this divide as a potential source of conflict and choose to skip the remote option altogether.

The end of professions?

Another testament to the friction created by the office-remote divide is the frustration brought by the (often mandatory) return-to-the-office policies, which have prompted both protests and walkouts around the world. Meanwhile, roles that were once strictly office-based are becoming more blurred — resulting in administrative frustration and confusion — while the option of remote work has become so paramount that some workers are choosing or staying in jobs due to flexibility perks, rather than a sincere appreciation for the actual job.

What we’re seeing is a paradox where the pandemic made certain jobs essential, but also created a new paradigm where professional perks have become as essential as the jobs themselves. And it begs a whole slew of questions: Will these essential fields face a staff-shortage crisis, or will companies (or governments) simply be forced to drastically increase wages? Will time become an increasingly strong currency, with people considering earning less in exchange for greater autonomy? And, ultimately, will it only be high-level positions that can work remotely, thus generating constant conflicts with those who cannot reach such positions?

In an increasingly rich society with growing employability among its citizens, we’re still seeing the same, seemingly eternal, conflicts play out in the labor market. However, it could be considered even sadder today as technology like AI and automation could — perhaps for the first time in modern history — create a society of less work and more time for ourselves.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Translated by Jamie Broadway

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