Mar 10, 2020 - Technology

Not all tech employees can work from home

Illustration of a dark room full of cubicles, with some lit up by computer screens

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The remote work plan many companies are launching in response to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus doesn't work for everyone — even in the tech industry, and even for people whose jobs involve sitting in front of a screen all day.

Why it matters: While remote work can be an important tool for helping slow the spread of the disease, it's not a panacea.

Driving the news:

  • Companies including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, Salesforce and more have been encouraging those workers who can do so to work from home.
  • The telecommuting efforts initially focused on the Seattle area, then expanded to the San Francisco Bay Area and are now expanding from there.
  • IBM, for example, said Monday that workers in New York City and Westchester should work from home until further notice if their job permits.

Yes, but: The key phrase in those work-from-home edicts was "those who can do so."

There are many tech jobs that don't lend themselves to remote work, beyond those you'd expect:

  • Content moderators. Companies have been moving toward limiting this work to company facilities for privacy protection because workers are often looking at private customer data.
  • App Store reviewers: At companies like Apple, Amazon and Google, humans are looking at unreleased code from third parties, and the companies don't want that data to leave their premises.
  • Those doing specialized and/or highly proprietary work: At Intel, it's not just the workers in its factories that can't telecommute. Chip architects — along with the engineers in the shop that makes the masks used to print chips — use specialized systems that can't be operated remotely.

The state of play: Some of the limits on these roles could change with added software and security features designed to protect customer data — but those would require care and time to implement.

The big picture: Those tech jobs are in addition to the more obvious examples of jobs that don't easily move to remote work:

  • Security workers, both those who patrol the perimeters of tech campuses and those who secure the people, machines and secrets inside the buildings.
  • Data center operators, some of whom are still required on the premises to keep the centers humming, even though at least some of this work has already switched to remote.
  • Delivery workers responsible for delivering the goods sold via tech marketplaces — many of whom are gig workers.
  • Support staff who drive the shuttles, clean the offices and cook the food enjoyed by tech workers. Many tech giants are ensuring these hourly workers continue to be paid even as people work from home.

The other side: Telecommute policies could help even those who do have to show up at the office.

  • Companies are hoping that fewer employees in the office also makes things safer for those who do have to come in.

The bottom line: Shifting to a new way of working so quickly will take some adjustment — both at the individual level, for telecommuting newbies and for the tech companies themselves.

Go deeper: Work goes remote in the face of the coronavirus

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