By Rosie DiManno / August 25, 2023
You’d think that the death knell for working remotely arrived when Zoom summoned (most of) its employees back to the office this month.
Surely if the company that ushered in the age of video conferencing and webinars from home – or elsewhere – was putting its foot down, then the office environment that had been turned on its head by a global pandemic had begun righting itself.
As the little Zoom icon directs: Hand-up if you’ve got something to say about it.
To be fair, Zoom announced it was taking mere baby steps in reorienting staff, weaning only the staff living within a “commutable distance” (50 miles, in the company’s estimation) from its bricks-and-mortar establishments, and only requiring in-person attendance for two days a week. “We believe that a structured hybrid approach – meaning employees that live near an office need to be onsite two days a week to interact with their teams – is most effective for Zoom,” according to a company statement.
Ironically, it’s Big Tech – primarily responsible for shifting work away from our rat-race hubs – which is now reversing that traffic flow from the virtual to the put-on-your-pants authentic. Meta, Google, X (formerly Twitter), Apple and Amazon have all ordered the peons back to the coal mines.
So has the Star, two days a week at minimum. But not the Toronto Sun, friends who work there tell me. They worry that the Sun (Postmedia) office might never reopen. Of course the Sun, which seizes upon every opportunity not to publish an actual paper paper, would as eagerly ditch a real newsroom, I dare say, as it has so pitilessly slashed staff to the woody.
Some of us have been fortunate enough to rarely step foot in the office, even before COVID. I was one of them. But my workplace was always less One Yonge Street (or now, eerily slick 8 Spadina Avenue, The Well) and more wherever the reporting took me: The courthouse, crime scenes, city hall, baseball parks, NHL arenas, etc. Either filing on site or, later, from home. There was nothing, however, like the newsroom in big-story mode, all hands on deck, banging off copy and racing toward deadline, everybody to the bar afterward, waiting for a copyboy to bring down the papers straight off the presses, still damp to the touch and smelling heavenly.
All ancient history now, the presses we once owned and a rollicking newsroom and the collaboration and camaraderie of a job done at full throttle. Or yeah, just hanging over a colleague’s desk to gossip.
And perhaps going-going-gone, too, is the traditional office because plenty of workers are digging in their hell-no heels, even declaring they’ll quit before resuming the in-person status quo.
Personally I loathed the Zoom experience. Got sick of staring at screens. Missed the give and take, and nuance, of a genuine conversation or interview, especially with camera off. Further – and I’m speaking particularly about my profession – managers quickly realized that reporters were indeed able to cover an event, a game, virtually.
We, journalists, shot ourselves in the head by straining to make it work from a distance. So, geez, why spend money we don’t much have anymore to travel for in situ reporting? If play-by-play announcers could deliver, say, a Leafs road game from a studio in Toronto, watching the feed, then why should a beat reporter venture into a press box or a dressing room hundreds of miles away, racking up expenses?
Answer: Because nothing can replace actually being there, whether a ball game or a raging bush fire threatening Yellowknife. That’s the essence of journalism, to witness first-hand and tell the story. Reporting once removed, relying – at its very worst – on social media to lift quotes instead of conducting face-to-face interviews is an exceedingly poor substitute.
Sorry, went down a rant rabbit-hole there, drifting too far from where this column started out.
Working remotely was arguably a pandemic gift for most people, if not me. (Except for the two occasions when I contracted COVID, I never locked down, never stopped travelling, never sealed myself off from the world.) Societies embraced a new way of doing things. It was a necessity. Now, though, it’s no longer about health and safety; it’s about convenience, from the employee’s perspective, and quite liking this alternative work model that eased the complications of child care, that erased the rush-around frenzy and that removed the eyes-on scrutiny of a boss. Employees enjoyed the flexibility and autonomy, while discovering a life-work balance that had been elusive.
Thus the workforce is balking, unwilling to give up what they perceive as a superior workaround. But remote work is also a privilege, available primarily to the white collar, managerial and clerical cohort. So it’s in essence a class thing and class things leave me cold.
There’s been plenty of research into the whole work-from-home phenomenon. A report published a few months ago by Stanford University’s School of Humanities and Sciences found that before the pandemic, only about five per cent of the typical U.S. workforce worked from home. That skyrocketed to more than 61 per cent when COVID muscled into our existence. Currently, according to the report, about 30 per cent of employees are still working from home. “In some ways, one of the lasting legacies of the pandemic will be the shift to work from home,” Stanford scholar Nicholas Bloom said.
The research concluded that about 58 per cent of people can’t work from home at all and they are typically front-line workers with lower pay. Other studies noted that remote work was all but impossible for those who work outside and those whose jobs require operating vehicles, mechanical devices and other equipment. A team of economists in Norway estimated that approximately 36 per cent of jobs could realistically be performed from home.
So no, I don’t like the built-in disadvantage for working stiffs who aren’t manager and academics and the like. Further, while I don’t usually take a management/ownership view of things, the fact remains that office space is rented and that is a wasted expense if the space sits empty. So of course employers want to see boots on the ground. Nor can the vitality of in-person teamwork be underestimated, though perhaps we’ve all learned that endless meetings are useless and unnecessary.
Perhaps hammering out a hybrid model that satisfies everybody will be the stuff of labour negotiations and union contracts henceforth. But frankly, given the threat to jobs posed by AI – which doesn’t complain about long commutes and multi-tasking – I’d be leery of making myself expendable to technology.
Besides, some of us never really got the hang (hand-up) of it.