Hot takes about how working from home is the downfall of society are, quite frankly, getting old. Remote work is not a groundbreaking concept, especially since a significant number of people were forced to figure it all out — and fast — following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Non-essential workers who were required to stay home to quell the spread learned how to do their work to the best of their ability (and productively, I might add).
The anti-WFH noise argues that our attitude towards work, generally speaking, has changed after the pandemic, and not for the better. But if taking a real, hard look at how work controls us has inspired us to put ourselves, our health, and our lives first — before our companies, our jobs, our ambitions — who can say that it’s not for the better?
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chandler Ford, 35, was working as an office manager at an agency. They had hurt their back in an accident, which led to a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, a chronic disorder that causes bodily pain and fatigue, and ended up having to file for disability compensation so they could work from home part-time due to their debilitating symptoms. "When I was working in an office, I was running up and down the stairs, I was lifting heavy objects, talking to people all day long, and that became really, really difficult for me once I was dealing with this illness," they tell Refinery29. The company was understanding of Ford’s situation and — as required by law — accommodated them. Then COVID-19 hit.
Ford began working from home full-time and realised that this was the kind of work environment that would best suit them, both physically and mentally. The company closed their office due to COVID-19 and Ford now works from home full-time as an app developer and marketer with their partner. "I never have to feel like I'm compromising what I need to do for my personal health versus what I need to do for my work responsibilities. I just feel like I'm doing my best work when I can do my best work," they continue. "If I try to push myself to do those things when I can't even string a sentence together because I'm having adverse neurological symptoms, then that doesn't benefit anyone. And it doesn't benefit me."
For others, the desire to work from home is simple. Madi, 26, wants a better work-life balance and has been toying with the idea of moving with her husband to be closer to family. Soon, after applying to other jobs, Madi was offered a fully remote position that could allow her to move near her family and so she turned to her current employer to see what they’d give her as a counter-offer. Although the new opportunity was offering her $20,000 more than she was making, she didn’t want a raise or extra vacation days, or any other perks to convince her to stay. Her only ask? Having the flexibility to work from home. Her employer said no. Madi started her new job last month.
Sam*, 27, is in a similar boat. During the pandemic, she moved away from her work to live somewhere more remote, and close to the water. Although she’s been there ever since, her company wanted her to return to the city by March 2022. "[The return date] was unclear, it was like a moving target," she tells Refinery29. "I kept trying to delay it… I might have even lied and said I was in a lease when I wasn’t. I was like, 'Oh, I don’t want to break my lease and if I do, it would be a big problem for me.'"
She began applying for both remote and local jobs in her area and ended up snagging a position at a city-based company that lets her work from home. "I wasn't necessarily just like, 'Hey, I love remote work, it's the best thing for me' — I don't have kids, I don't have a need to literally stay in my house all the time. I feel like the whole social aspect and creative aspect of working with people is kind of cool. But I didn't want to move from where I was," she says. "[Working remotely] wasn't the only reason why I got another job, but it helped to spark that fire within me to find another job."
Having the option to work from home, whether it’s full-time or a few days a week, is invaluable to those who work in industries where it’s viable. Flexible work has allowed people to have greater job autonomy, which is the ability to make decisions about the way they work, the hours they work, and even the days they work. It’s why many are so protective over their current remote or hybrid working situations — once that autonomy is threatened, it can feel like a major loss. "It's kind of like taking away my job security or taking away my favourite activity on the job because I got comfortable with it," says Denise M. Rousseau, PhD, a professor of organisational behaviour.
In-office work has historically benefitted straight, white, cis men, especially those with wives at home to take care of the household. Remote work can often offer an escape from that culture and the microaggressions that come with it, especially for those in the LGBTQIA+ community and people of colour.
Of course, not all jobs can be done remotely, which is an incredible privilege in and of itself. There are positions that need an employee to be there in person, such as jobs in the service industry, jobs on sets, onsite engineers, construction workers, nurses, doctors, teachers, and more. Still, having a semblance of control over our work is a necessary part of job satisfaction, and flexible work is one way to achieve it.
We can’t acknowledge the opportunities that working from home has given us without acknowledging some of the hardships, too — there’s Zoom fatigue, the feeling of isolation, the difficulty of separating work life from home life, the bosses who watch like hawks to make sure our Slack icons stay green. There’s also the "second shift," which is the added burden, often faced by women — especially in a heteronormative household — of taking care of the living conditions and children. McKinsey found that during the pandemic, mothers were three times as likely as fathers to do most of the extra housework each day — on top of their full-time jobs. This "second shift" rang true far before the pandemic began.
Although Ford feels happy in their current situation, there’s still some fear that they and their partner’s venture won’t work out — meaning that maybe, one day, they'll have to return to the job hunt. "I don't feel like, at this point, I can go back to an in-person environment because I'm honestly scared that I could not live up to someone's physical job responsibilities or requirements based on my chronic illness," they say. "I just know that I do much better when I am able to address my needs for resting or taking time to let a flare pass. It's really hard to do that when you're on someone else's timetable with someone else's requirements. I would definitely only look for remote work, which is limiting."
Xinyu (Judy) Hu, PhD, assistant professor of industrial and organisational psychology, says we’ve seen a huge spike in companies and industries creating remote and hybrid opportunities for their talent since the onset of COVID-19. "Overall, it's trending that way and we're seeing positive changes in terms of people's job performance as well as their satisfaction and wellbeing-related indicators," she tells Refinery29.
To keep working from home, Ford and Madi say they’d take a pay cut. "I would pivot and do work I was overqualified for, or even something that just wasn't in my zone of interest," Ford says.
It's undeniable that the pandemic has caused great tragedy — but it has also caused us to get creative and find solutions to difficult problems, including work. "When you're faced with changing your way of life, in terms of dealing with a disease or disability, you kind of have to embrace your new normal. At least, that's what I tried to do," Ford says. "I try to look at it as a positive that working from home enables me to still contribute, still make things that are important, and still connect with people. I just do it in a different way."
Dr. Rousseau says that any time we have to make an exception or do something we haven’t done before in a crisis, we end up learning a lot more about what’s possible. Working from home works — not for everyone, sure, but it’s important that we give those who want that choice the agency to do so. Whether it’s entirely remote positions, a hybrid model, or a full-time in office, it’s imperative to let workers work the way that works for them.
The tides are changing. Companies that want to stay relevant need to get on board.
*Name changed to protect identity