Elon Musk, the renowned maker of things that go boom1, has declared that remote work is “morally wrong." . During this most recent interview, he characterizes remote work as a demand by a spoiled and classist white-collar workforce. Mr. Musk appears to be confusing the concept of fairness (impartial and equitable treatment) with morality (the distinction between right and wrong or good and evil). One could be forgiven for interpreting the argument and its framing as one that paints Elon Musk as a populist champion for the working class. It’s hypocritical for anyone with so much wealth and privilege to criticize others for requesting reasonable accommodation.
Nevertheless, if morality is now a central aspect of the debate, we need to examine all the different ways that it impacts our society. Fortunately for us, there’s a lot of research that’s been done on this subject (my links, let me show you them). Understanding how remote work has affected people comes largely down to study so we can answer the question, “Does the impact of remote work result in greater benefit to our society and individuals in it?”
In 1970, Milton Friedman, a renowned economist of his day, published his Friedman Doctrine in the New York Times. He felt that any discussion of corporate social responsibility was to participate in the intentional undermining of a free society2. Milton “Things I Don’t Like Are Socialism” Friedman was a champion of supply-side3 economics; a theory that has been discredited in practice so consistently that some of his contemporaries now attempt to redirect4 and distract5 from its ongoing failures by hair-splitting until would-be interlocutors run in the other direction.
For C-suites and boards of directors who still give credence to the Milton doctrine6, the 80% increase in quarterly profits since mid-20207 provides compelling evidence that remote work, at minimum, is no hindrance to profitable growth. If some believe that the highest good a company can perform is maximizing profits for owners, shouldn’t any policy proven to be this effective become a moral imperative?
I find measuring worker performance on something other than the outcomes they’ve produced is often the result of uneducated and inexperienced management. If quarterly corporate profit is at an all-time high, claiming that the increase in remote work has led to poorer workforce performance is a statement only woefully unqualified supervisors would make8.
We shouldn’t settle for my squatch-sense here. So it’s great that one study after another confirms that remote workers often perform equal to or better than their colleagues who work from the office full-time9 10 11. If profits and performance benefit from granting hybrid and remote options to eligible workers, you might be wondering how this is an ongoing debate.
Women, Caregivers, and Children
You probably don’t need an article to tell you that women carry a disproportionate amount of responsibility at home (but here’s one anyway12). It should come as no surprise then that the majority of women in surveys have stated a preference for more flexibility regarding where and when their work is done13 14. Affording caregivers flexibility and autonomy makes moral sense considering that they carry the lion’s share of responsibilities across work and home.
Additionally, studies have indicated that hybrid and remote options have likely contributed to an increase in the birth rate15. Economic studies have established a strong relationship between women’s confidence in their ability to care and provide for children and the birth rate16 17. Interestingly enough, this particular impact of remote and hybrid work closely aligns with another of Elon Musk’s stated concerns, “If people don’t have more children, civilization is going to crumble.”18
Finally, longitudinal studies demonstrate that giving parents more autonomy at work positively impacts how effectively they connect with and raise children during early development19.
So in addition to record profits, and improved productivity, we can add increasing birthrates, improved outcomes for children, and improved quality of life for caregivers and women. Sorry Elon, these are hardly the kind of outcomes one can assign to the wages of iniquity. Just in case though, let’s really bury this claim.
Diversity and Inclusion
Ensuring people can participate in the workforce regardless of race, skin color, national origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, religion, physical attributes, age, or disability is morally (and lawfully) good. Even ol’ Milty would have to concede since he stipulated that maximization of profit must still happen within legal constraints and the ethical customs of society. In a survey of 2,745 respondents (well beyond the minimum number of participants necessary for statistical significance), Glassdoor found that 76% of respondents said that a diverse work environment is an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers20.
So how has an increase in remote work over time impacted who can participate? Facebook found that people of color were better represented in their own workforce, including leadership roles 21. Further surveys have demonstrated that people from underprivileged and underrepresented groups prefer hybrid or fully remote options and will leave an employer when that flexibility is missing22.
Given the broad conviction that diversity and inclusion are important and the evidence that diverse teams produce better outcomes for their employers, adopting more flexible work arrangements is just one of the reasons why remote work should be viewed as morally good.
People with Disabilities
For those of us who live with a disability, remote work may be the only thing keeping us in the workforce27. While I won’t dive into my personal experiences here, I will share that I am no longer able to satisfy hybrid, in-office requirements and have lost out on some roles that I was otherwise qualified for due to traditional thinking around in-office requirements. Should people in my situation (and there are a lot of us) be excluded from participating in the workforce?
In-office presence isn’t correlated with improved performance and should not be a requirement for roles traditionally thought of as “office work.” Supervisors who attach in-office requirements to roles for the sake of their personal comfort are excluding a significant talent pool through the introduction of undue hardship28. This is especially true given that the majority of disabled Americans deal with mobility issues and the number of disabled Americans increases29.
It is morally good to allow disabled individuals to participate in the workforce without introducing unnecessary requirements that can lead to worse health outcomes and hardship. Even if we can’t find evidence that disabled persons bring important and unique skills or perspectives to their team, excluding them when they are able to produce the outcomes necessary to succeed, is bigoted and immoral.
If we consider the impact on corporations, individuals, and their families, the evidence is consistently positive and demonstrates why allowing for remote and hybrid work arrangements is the morally correct choice for companies to make. As exhaustive as the number of references may seem, there are other dimensions of the positive benefits that remote and hybrid work have for everyone in the workforce and a lot of articles and studies I chose not to try and include. My hope is that executive leaders and their investors will come to recognize remote and hybrid arrangements are a net positive for everyone.