Axios @Work

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January 20, 2021

Welcome back to @Work. Send your thoughts on today's issue — or on any workplace topics — to me at [email protected]

  • 🎧 My recommendation for the week: Listen to my colleague Jonathan Swan break down Trump's final days in office with fresh, behind-the-scenes reporting in our new podcast series, "How It Happened: Trump's Last Stand."

I've got 1,409 words for you this morning, which should take 5 minutes to read. To start...

1 big thing: Work-wherever turns to work-whenever

Illustration of a time clock with the numbers and line elements fallen off
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The pandemic killed the 9-to-5 workday for many.

The big picture: So much of our society — from after-school child care programs to the most coveted time slots for television shows — is structured around working from 9 to 5. But our countrywide experiment in remote work has demonstrated that the hours we are logged on don't matter as long as the work gets done.

Why it matters: Dismantling the 9-to-5 workday adds a great deal of flexibility that could benefit working parents, caretakers, part-time students and more.

"It becomes increasingly clear in a remote setting, especially with colleagues traveling or relocating to varying time zones, that trying to retain a rigid work schedule makes little sense for many jobs," says Darren Murph, head of remote work at GitLab, the world's largest all-remote company.

  • "One of the key perks of remote work done well is flexibility. This includes flexibility of schedule."

And it's not just white-collar office jobs that are becoming more untethered.

  • With the rise of gig work, millions of Americans are making money based on how many rides they complete or groceries they deliver instead of how many hours they work.
  • Yes, but: That model adds to the precariousness of the gig economy and is a big driver behind the movement to give gig workers full-employee status.

The upside: Setting hours independently gives workers the ability to tailor each workday to their specific preferences, Murph says. Companies that embrace work-whenever should also learn to communicate with emails and documents rather than scheduled meetings to allow employees to truly plan their own days, he says.

  • Parents can take a break in the middle of the day to play with their kids and then catch up on work after dinner.
  • Trips to the gym can be scheduled for the afternoon, between meetings, instead of at the crack of dawn.
  • If you're more productive in the mornings, you can begin the day before your colleagues. And the same goes for night owls.

The downside: Despite its perks, work-whenever — which means there is no clear time to log on or log off — has the potential to fray work-life balance.

But, but, but: Most companies are still used to the 9-to-5 workday and communicating through meetings, which require employees to be logged on at roughly the same hours.

  • Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom has been surveying remote workers throughout the pandemic, and the majority say their pandemic hours and pre-pandemic hours still have about 80% overlap.
  • So there's a chance work-whenever is "mostly a short-run pandemic phenomenon," Bloom says.

The bottom line: Whether it's allowing employees to telecommute or letting them set their own hours, companies will ultimately decide how much workplace flexibility they'll bring into the post-pandemic world.

  • And employees will likely make decisions on where they want to work based on those company polices.

2. The age of digital nomads

Illustration of a desk on a beach under a palm tree.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Speaking of work-wherever ... That trend is now mature enough that startups are popping up to serve the digital nomads — those who are hopping around from city to city or country to country as they telework.

What's happening: Leases are getting shorter and countries are experimenting with remote work visas as the pandemic upends the way we live.

In the real estate space, there's "fresh demand for furnished housing on a short-term basis, a fast-growing niche that many property startups and their venture-capital backers are rushing to fill," Konrad Putzier writes for the Wall Street Journal.

  • Landing, which operates a network of furnished apartments available for short-term leases across the U.S., launched in 2019 and expanded to 75 cities last year.
  • Sonder and Airbnb are both reporting an uptick in long-term stays of 14 days or more.

For nomads itching to go even farther, countries like Bermuda and Estonia are offering remote work visas.

What to watch: Our tax laws are based around working from one place. The fact that many workers flitted from city to city in 2020 could make filing a big mess this year.

3. By the numbers: $15's impact

Reproduced from Pew Research Center; Map: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from Pew Research Center; Map: Axios Visuals

President-elect Joe Biden is calling to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, which is nearly double the current $7.25. The move would be the first change to the federal minimum wage since 2009.

Why it matters: The pandemic exposed the ugly ways in which America treats low-wage employees — even when they're doing essential jobs. Raising the federal minimum wage would put more money into the pockets of many of these same essential workers who have been on the front lines throughout the pandemic.

What to watch: $15 an hour would have a massive impact in smaller cities and in the middle of the country.

  • Lots of larger metros, including San Francisco and New York, already have $15 or higher minimum hourly wages. In those places, the cost of living is so high that $15 feels more like $12 (see map above).
  • But in smaller cities, where the minimum wage is much closer to $7.25 and the median wage is closer to $15, the federal bump would make a huge difference.

All told, "hiking the national minimum to $15 an hour by 2025 would lift 1.3 million workers above wages that put them below the poverty line," CBS reports, citing an analysis from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

  • Yes, but: The CBO also estimates that the hike could cost $1.3 million jobs, as small businesses unable to pay their workers $15 an hour lay people off or go out of business.

4. Companies wade into vaccination push

Illustration of a syringe and glass medicine bottle with a post-it note attached that says "to do"
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Some of America's biggest employers are using their influence to try to increase vaccination numbers.

The big picture: To get back to the pre-pandemic normal, 75% of America needs to be vaccinated, according to Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert.

  • But a large share of the U.S. population remains skeptical. Companies incentivizing their employees and customers to get vaccinated could speed the process along.

What's happening: Instacart, Dollar General and Trader Joe's are offering time off and extra pay to workers who get the vaccine.

Worth noting: For now, companies are just offering cash incentives, but they're legally allowed to require employees to get vaccinated to come to work.

5. Worthy of your time

Data: IEA; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: IEA; Chart: Axios Visuals

SUV emissions rose during the pandemic (Axios)

  • Stunning stat: While energy-related carbon emissions fell steeply last year as people stopped commuting and traveling, emissions from SUVs actually rose slightly (by an estimated 0.5%). "Remarkably, we estimate that the increase in the overall SUV fleet in 2020 cancelled out the declines in oil consumption by SUVs that resulted from Covid-related lockdown measures," notes the International Energy Agency.

Is remote work making us paranoid? (New York Times)

  • Telecommuting means missing out on in-person emotional connections and letting co-workers look into your home on video calls. All of that can spur paranoia, experts say. Remote workers around the country are finding themselves obsessing over a joke that fell flat on a video call or a messy dresser that was visible in the background.

Transit agencies rethink monthly passes (Wall Street Journal)

  • Daily commutes to the office and back are becoming a thing of the past, and the monthly bus and rail passes many of us are used to buying won't be necessary anymore. Agencies like NJ Transit and New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority are experimenting with new sorts of packages for the occasional commuter, like ticket bundles that don't expire.

Breaking down "video chat voice" (New Yorker)

  • If you've been feeling like your friends and colleagues just don't sound the same over video calls, you're onto something. "Video chat voice" is a real thing — it's become the "sound of social distancing," and it can make us feel even farther away from the people we're talking to, Nate Hopper writes for the New Yorker. There are a host of factors involved, including the distance from your mouth to the mic and the room's reverberation.

6. 1 fun thing: The future of work could look like gaming

A number of startups are trying to make remote work feel a bit more like working in an office — and a bit more fun.

The Wall Street Journal's Christopher Mims visited one startup's virtual office, which was set up in a castle on a beach.

  • The company uses Gather, which is a new cloud-based software for remote work. Mims describes it as "what you get when you smash together a 1990s-era videogame and Zoom."
  • Employees can gather at a virtual bar or spend the day working "by the ocean."
  • It's not just about fun backgrounds and graphics though. When you're with your colleagues in a virtual room, you can walk up to someone to strike up a conversation or ask a question about a project — instead of sending a Slack message or email. The experience more closely mimics what it's like to be in the office.

Check out Mims' column to read about the other startups making cool remote work software.

Thanks for reading!