October 6th, 2020
“Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong
You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store”
“Sixteen Tons” – Tennessee Ernie Ford
The pandemic has forced millions of people to work remotely, often from their homes. I think this was a trend that was already becoming more common prior to the COVID outbreak, but the virus put this development into overdrive. One estimate, from June of this year, stated that 42% of the U.S. labor force was working from home. That percentage has probably changed in the last few months, but I suspect that it is still incredibly high. Many of these workers have not gone back to their offices. Many of them never will.
There are plenty of jobs that cannot be done online. Our two sons both work in construction. One is a welder, and the other pumps concrete for a living. They both have to go somewhere to build things. They make good money and they have good benefits. However, they will never be able to work from home. The same goes for nurses, plumbers, airline pilots, soldiers, and any number of other workers. The people who venture forth into the world every day have no choice but to do so. They cannot provide the services we need if they are at home.
I’m retired. For nearly twenty-eight years I was a dock supervisor at a trucking company. I spent most of my hours on a computer, but I also had to physically inspect the dock operation. I could not effectively do my job of planning and organizing on a screen. I had to be where the action was. I had to interact with the guys driving forklifts and moving freight from trailer to trailer. It was impossible for me to be a virtual supervisor.
I suppose with advances in technology a person could someday run a dock operation from a remote location. However, I suspect that things would be missed. I know that the human element would be missing. Workers are not just ciphers. Crunching numbers only gives a boss so much information. There is such a thing as “managing by wandering around”.
There are apparently many advantages to being able to work from home: flexible hours, no commute, no need to dress for success, etc. I wonder about the downsides to this way of working. I think that there are some.
When I was working, whether my shift lasted ten hours or fourteen, I knew that at the end of it, I could go home. There was a clear delineation between “work” and “home”. When I left the dock, I was done for the day. I often had a blessed form of amnesia as I walked across the parking lot to get into my car. The act of commuting home was actually therapeutic in a way. I needed that physical distance between my work place and my living space. I needed that separation in order to relax and regroup.
How does a person who works from home unwind after a stressful day? That person is still in his or her work environment. Nothing has materially changed in that respect. How does a person who has had “a rough day at the office” relax when he or she is still sitting in their “office”? How does a person recreate when the work is still there, and the shift never really ends? Do flexible hours mean that a worker is always on call? When is it time to work and when is it time to play?
I see us entering a brave new world, to use Huxley’s phrase.
I’m just glad that I’m retired.