A few principles of the Second Law of Thermodynamics serve to prove the irrefutable superiority of remote work for knowledge workers:
1. natural processes are irreversible
2. concentrated energy is more efficient
3. entropy reduces efficiency
The human body is basically a system with a finite amount of energy that is tasked with accomplishing work. In the case of knowledge workers, electrochemical energy (brain power) is burned to produce actual work in exchange for money.
As with any system, energy in the human body varies greatly with the environment in which it operates, and this includes the mental framework. Efficiency can reach dizzying heights in a remote-work environment, but it’s not automatic. It requires a disciplined mind and a renewed dedication to actual work, from both manager and employee.
What is the finite amount of energy at our disposal? The eight-hour workday might be a good baseline for manual labor, but for creative work, five hours of peak productivity per day is around the most we can expect from anyone (assuming chemical intake is caffeine and not something stronger like Adderall). This is supported by research, my practical experience, and general common sense. The remainder of the requisite eight-hour day can be spent doing tasks that are less brain-intensive, like research, revision, and the inevitable administrative work.
Remote work allows for maximum efficiency, like some zero-loss, theoretical energy source recovered from an alien spacecraft marooned on Earth.
By contrast the physical office environment disperses the concentration of energy and limits efficiency to somewhere between zero and thirty percent, which just happens to be the range of efficiency at which an internal combustion engine converts old-school petrochemical fuel into forward momentum. In this work arrangement energy is wasted on non-work activities in the effort to get to (and exist!) in the place where we’re paid to think.
1. Natural processes are irreversible.
Business objectives must comply with the laws of physics and human nature, not the other way around. In an average work week the employer owns a set amount of the employee’s energy, and the employee agrees to devote that amount of time to the working process. All the effort devoted to work that does not involve actual work gets decremented from the total in terms of output no matter what, regardless of the quality of employee. When the limit is reached, productivity takes a dive. On the outside the employee may appear to be working and this might give the manager a warm feeling; but warm feelings do not contribute to the bottom line. On the inside her bullshit meter is beyond the threshold and she’s turned off. Employee energy is a currency, and it’s the employer’s responsibility to spend it wisely. Spending the energy wisely results in success for the organization, and this starts with providing the right environment for its employees.
2. Concentrated energy is more efficient.
How is the knowledge worker’s finite energy dispersed by the physical presence requirement of the traditional office?
First, there’s THE COMMUTE. For me the actual work is not so bad. Generally speaking I like what I do, and I’d do it even if I had all the time and or money in the world. What bothers me are the thousands of little actions that comprise the stupid routine to get my meat mass to the work site, exist there for nine plus hours, and then get back from there, when there is no logical reason for me to be there in the first place. Sure, I usually make the best use of my commute time, but I’d rather be focusing on actual work, fulfilling my actual obligations to my employer, and then getting on with life.
True, it is my responsibility to commute from home to the work site, but as noted above, it doesn’t matter. Natural processes cannot be reversed.
Most people have it much worse. I devote the absolute minimum time on wardrobe and hygiene, and then I take it easy on the train, reading a book or planning my day. Most U.S. workers have to deal with the hellish nightmare of rush hour traffic in a motor vehicle, which luckily I have not experienced in twenty-plus years. How productive can an employee be if he just spent the past hour screaming his intent to murder the mothers of people who cut him off in traffic? Recently I calculated that one of my friends had driven around the world over six times in the past ten years, in terms of mileage driven back and forth to work. Somehow, to him this was not just normal, but commendable. To me it’s insane, a wooden board cracked over the head.
The commute has a massive impact on the environment and long-term health issues. Of course there is zero energy loss with teleworking. The commute is zero. Food prep is zero. Clothing prep is zero. All these things can be done during breaks in the work day. Impact on the environment: zero. Let’s stop this harmful, masochistic routine once and for all.
3. Entropy reduces efficiency.
Then there are all the continuous, idiotic distractions that only an office can produce. OH THE HUMANITY. People invade your space and force you to listen to their stupid jokes, gossip, opinions about world events. There’s always some guy in the next cubicle over who just won’t shut the hell up. Some days the senseless meetings are non-stop. For me, tendency to produce actual work is much greater when working remotely, as there has to be some measureable impact of my work. In the office I tend to slack, simply because being seen and heard is perceived (wrongly) as equal value to actual work.
The importance of written communication often goes unrecognized in the physical office. It’s not unusual to spend time crafting a clear description or explanation in an email reply, only to have the recipient run to your cubicle for an offline follow-up, leaving others out. Email is asynchronous for a reason. There’s real value in taking time for deliberate thought. It’s also not unusual to verbalize the same information to many different people in different ways in addition to writing about it. This is because interpersonal, verbal communication just feels better, especially to those people whose job only job is to appear important. Even if people have no idea what you’re talking about, they smile and nod because they feel better hearing your words, and they feel better knowing that you’re working in a professional environment with them, wearing similar “business casual” clothing, looking polished, professional and smart. None of this has anything to do with the actual product or service that we’re paid to provide, but we’re all dancing the same stupid dance, and in this way the inter-subjective experience becomes real. Communication in an office setting typically requires triple the energy than is actually necessary to convey thoughts and ideas.
In the very best case scenario THE PHYSICAL OFFICE environment is not as good as what you have at home. Does anyone have a cubicle at home? The answer is “no,” unless you’re hopelessly locked into the wage slave mentality. People are not meant to sit in boxes. A bad physical environment drains energy and dramatically decrements the bullshit tolerance, as well as other human needs like comfort, fun, and hygiene. There are very real studies that show how bad lighting and cold air, for example, reduce employee productivity.
The “existing there” part is currently the most challenging for me, as it’s the extreme opposite of what I used to have. By contrast, in my old teleworking job I used to proactively invent improvement projects and find work to do when things were slow. I don’t do this anymore. All I’m thinking about all day is getting the hell away from that place.
In a typical week I drop about thirty hours on the above three items (the commute, the humanity, and the physical office). This might seem like a lot, but when you factor in all the water-cooler chats, the distractions, pointless meetings, meat-mass transport, navigating distance to nearest vacant toilet seat, or availability of suitable places to sit down and eat lunch, the time adds up. So I’ve burned about three-quarters of the energy I’ve agreed to devote to the job, and this is before any actual was has been done. If there’s something urgent to do then I’ll do it, but my finite energy level and my business sense are telling me that I’ve only got a total of ten hours of productivity left to give.
At the end of the week in my old teleworking job, I had accomplished a solid thirty or forty hours of actual work, which, if people are absolutely honest, is a heck of a lot of brain work in one week for any job. My bullshit meter almost never got pegged, as energy spent was at or around the forty-hour limit. I was happy, engaged, and consistently returned to the company very high efficiency on hours logged.
As an added bonus to the organization I never called in sick in over ten years of working from home. Why not? Because I never had to serve my time in the virus distribution center called “The Office”. I still worked even if I was sick, and nobody suffered because of it. I never felt like I had to take long breaks from work. So the end result was win-win.
Remote work offers employer and employee the most efficient expenditure of human energy and the highest productivity in terms of actual work produced. Never mind the opportunity to eliminate the massive cost of maintaining the bizarre circus of bullshit called the physical office.
In the next post I’ll wrap up a few mind-tingling thoughts.