Boston College’s Center for Work and Family kicked off its Distinguished Speakers Series on January 26, 2022, with a discussion led by Peter Capelli on the current state of office work. Capelli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, is a renowned scholar in the business field as well as a consistent contributor to the Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review. Capelli was named as one of the top 5 most influential management thinkers by HR Magazine, and his knowledge and insight that encompasses the workplace environment are revered by many, which was evident in the myriad attendees from throughout the nation and world.
With the publication of Capelli’s newest book, The Future of the Office: Work from Home, Remote Work, and the Hard Choices We All Face, it was more apt than ever to further discuss these ideas and how they factor into the impending state of the workforce.
Capelli began by referencing the tech boom in the 2000s and what it did to change the standard of the workplace. Companies like Google were envied in the ways that their offices provided employees with childcare, pet care, gym facilities, and free food. “They’re the number one place people say they want to work,” Capelli said, asserting that young people were eager to enter the offices of Google and other large tech companies.
Now, however, 20% of Google employees can do their job without ever stepping foot in the office, while another 20% can go in every blue moon. This shift in the necessity for in-office work reflects the overall shift in our post-COVID world that places remote work at the forefront of many people’s lives.
More strikingly, Capelli presented the listeners with a graph that showed over 50% of national employees wish to work in a hybrid environment.
“What’s to like about remote work?” Capelli asked inquisitively. “We don’t have a great sense as to what is going on,” he admitted. An amalgamation of factors contributes to this newfound predilection of remote work. Some get to spend more time with their children, most are happy that they no longer have to commute, and others are just glad to be home.
While the employee seems to benefit best from this hybrid style of work that improves one’s work-life balance, Capelli calls into question the effect that this change has on the employer.
“For the CFOs, permanent remote work is fine and dandy with them,” Capelli asserted. The people in those positions only care about the financial side of things, and a company working from home means fewer expenses put toward office space.
Additionally, those who wish to permanently work from home are told, “we’re going to cut your pay,” by their employers. “There’s no good reason for cutting their pay, frankly, and these ideas that pay you based on the local labor market are nuts,” exclaimed Capelli. It is outright unfair to penalize employees who choose the work environment that is most comfortable for them, especially since it drives down costs for the company. Employers are scrambling to regain control over their employees, and it has become much harder now that they can avoid the office altogether.
“A lot of tech employers,” Capelli added, “think that this will be a way to recruit from cheaper locations.” In effect, skilled workers from around the world could be employed at a company that they are thousands of miles away from. What this system does is give the employer another highly-skilled and -productive employee who is naturally paid less just because they live in another country with different standards.
The crux of this practice is blatantly exploitative. It is almost an advanced form of contract manufacturing, which outsources labor to much cheaper countries. While that idea may seem practical for a mass-producing company, the laborers are met with unregulated working conditions, strict rules, low pay, and dogged exploitation. Perhaps these are the consequences that employers are willing to accept.
Another issue that companies are met with when deciding which course to take is the fact that most people who would want permanent remote work would be the caregiver of the family. While both men and women can be the primary caregiver, women and mothers tend to be the norm in that category. Implementing penalties for or prohibiting remote work will disproportionately affect women in the workplace. It has taken years for women to feel some sense of belonging in the office, and while they are still far from equality, these practices will only prove to denigrate and abase women workers.
Speaking on this issue, Capelli said, “You’re creating a very high possibility of long-term disparate impact.”
Bringing together all of the issues he presented, Capelli concluded by saying, “Here’s the takeaway… A little flexibility goes a long way.” Employers need to care about their workers and ensure that whichever environment they wish to be in is best for them. These are stressful times, and a company’s policies should not be adding to the already-anxious minds of their employees. Capelli mentioned that many employers are neither consulting nor informing their employees about changes within their policies.
“If that’s representative, then we kind of know where things are going. We’re going to bring people back in and not put policies in place, and we won’t have learned much if anything from this pandemic.”
Capelli’s new book, The Future of the Office: Work from Home, Remote Work, and the Hard Choices We All Face, is available now.