A few nights ago on Twitter, I quipped that I was planning to launch a trade union for remote workers. With dues of £10 a year, but membership of 200 million worldwide, I planned to become the Jimmy Hoffa of Zoom (my colleague Jamie McClellan, clearly a Microsoft fan, suggested we call ourselves the Teamsters). If our demands for swivel chairs were not met, we would threaten to homework-to-rule — sitting with our backs to brightly lit windows, perhaps, or running vacuum cleaners in mid-presentation.
But in a way, a million or so Londoners are already doing something similar by refusing to travel to work. This is a white-collar strike — or more accurately a strike by people who normally wear collars demanding the right to work dressed like Dominic Cummings.
And seated beside my brazier (technically a John Lewis firepit), I support my comrades in the remote-worker’s struggle. Unlike the often Luddite demands of strikers, this is the opposite. It is a campaign to allow technology to deliver its promised benefits to the quality of working life. If such a movement failed to take shape before, it was only because, while many of us suspected we ourselves could work effectively from home, nobody (even me) believed such a system could function at scale. We do now. It echoes John Locke’s famous locked-room analogy: we did not feel imprisoned before, because we did not know we were locked in. Now everyone knows there is a door.
Various economists, most notably Keynes, theorised that as wealth grew, people would work shorter hours. But this narrow model of exchange — time for money — fails to capture something we prize as highly as leisure which lies outside the realm of economics: personal autonomy.
Historically, when employers bought your labour, it was theirs alone to determine when and where it was performed. This made sense in 1930. Even in 1994, about 90 per cent of what I did required my timely presence in an office. Then mobile phones, email, laptop computers and high-speed home broadband each reduced that figure by about 10 per cent, with video-conferencing kicking it below the 50 per cent mark. This makes commuting two or three days a week seem feasible. Remote workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but Southeastern trains.
A more nuanced value exchange between employer and employee, which recognises that people like work more if they can choose when and where to perform it, is exactly the kind of intelligent revelation of value which free markets exist to provide. Autonomy is also a very efficient currency with which to reward your workforce, as it is one form of wealth which nobody knows how to tax.
When I describe autonomy as a form of wealth, I do not mean it only psychologically. There are two ways to become richer. One is to earn more. The other is to spend less on things you are forced to buy. Given the extraordinary centralising forces of the past 40 years — where the gains of the knowledge economy have disproportionately accrued to rent-seeking city landlords and transport networks — the freedom to work remotely is an instant 20 per cent pay rise. And sorry Boris, but if I travel to work in order to buy a £6 sandwich, in the short term, yes, I am bailing out Pret A Manger, but in the long term I’m bailing out the Duke of Westminster.
The whole purpose of technology is to be disruptive. And if it does not disrupt the real estate sector, it’s not really doing its job. If this is a strike, it’s a very Schumpeterian one. What do we want? Creative destruction! When do we want it? Now!
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