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Coronavirus (COVID-19) Health and Safety Guide

ASERT has compiled resources for those with autism and those who care for people with autism relating to the current COVID-19 outbreak.

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Remote Work is Necessary

By Miriam

As the pandemic lengthens, some companies have reversed course on supporting remote work. Early in the pandemic, there was an acceleration in the number of companies allowing employees to work from home. The shift back to the office has certainly not been linear, though there have been plenty of companies pushing for it. Some had to delay their return date due to the Omicron spike or other rises in case numbers. Some returned to the office only to go remote again when cases rose. Regardless, there have still been some employers who do not support offering remote work long-term. Meanwhile, a few have said their employees can work remotely permanently, though this still feels rare. 

I argue that remote work should continue. I understand not all jobs can be done remotely. A cashier in a grocery store cannot do their job from home. A robot or machine is more likely to replace them (such as self-checkout) than finding a way to do that job remotely. However, for jobs specifically, where someone is at a computer all day, they should be given the option to work from home. Occasionally, computer-based work requires access to hardware or other items only available in an employer’s office, depending on the job type. However, there are also plenty of jobs that can be done either on a separate device from home, by providing employees with laptops, or by allowing the employee to host into a computer in the office remotely. 

Both pre-pandemic and during it, I experienced multiple computer-based jobs that could have easily been conducted from home. I had one pre-pandemic where I was required to commute to the office every day only to sit at a very basic desktop once there. The desktop was placed against a wall located practically in a hallway that was not close to my co-workers. Every time I was there, I asked myself why this job could not be done from home. One major argument those opposed to remote work make is that in-person work provides young employees like me the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from their coworkers. Forgetting for a second the ways collaboration and learning can be done remotely, this argument did not apply to this particular job regardless. People rarely walked past me there and I was not exposed to the work of my coworkers often. I was about as isolated as I would have been working from home. Compared to a remote work environment that uses software like Slack for employees to communicate throughout the day, I was even more isolated. I simply sat there alone most of the time without talking to my coworkers virtually or in person, yet was required to show up in person every day. There was no real reason for me to be in the office specifically outside of when I had meetings with people, except that I was required to work in person. Even the meetings could have been conducted remotely since they were usually simple conversations that could have been conducted over a video call. We were not doing complex collaborations involving drawing on whiteboards or any other physical medium. 

In comparison, I had another job pre-pandemic where I edited videos for someone on my computer. I would come work in person if we needed to film more and show my boss the final edits so she could more easily give feedback and make changes before exporting. Sometimes, the feedback was also given by emailing back and forth if it was not a convenient time to watch the videos together in person or only a small adjustment was needed. The majority of the work could be done remotely and my boss trusted me to log the hours I worked without being there in person. If I had been required to work only in person, I would have been sitting in a random office space on my laptop or another computer doing the same type of work that could have been done from anywhere. I did not even need an internet connection most of the time to do that job, since I was working off files saved to either my computer or an external drive. I only needed a computer with editing software and a way to back up the footage, either using online storage or offline. For jobs like this, I argue that they should be permitted to be conducted remotely. 

Why allow people to work remotely? There are many answers to this, some of which vary by person. First of all, it benefits both the employer and employee in the types of jobs I described. If I am commuting to an office only to sit by myself at a computer all day in an isolated cubicle or office, I am paying for the cost of transportation back and forth while the employer pays for the office space they place me in when both commuting and being in the office are not needed. Even if my employer pays for the transportation, I am still losing the time it takes to commute. When working remotely, that time can be used for tasks at home that are not possible to do while commuting. Often, we are not talking about a little bit of time either. Most jobs I have worked previously had at least a half-hour commute, if not around an hour each way. We are talking about an hour or two of my day being used to drive or sit on a train or bus that could be used for something else. 

Now, some of you might be thinking that the types of jobs I described should simply redesign their office space to be more collaborative. Maybe they could make it into a more open floor plan or at least place me closer to my co-workers. Sure, for some jobs this would be nice. There are definitely offices that are designed in ways that are unnecessarily isolating. Imagine sitting in a small cubicle by yourself in which there is not even someone in the neighboring cubicles. It is somewhat dark and quiet. Along with being placed practically in a hallway, I had a job where I was in a lonely cubicle before as well. I actually loved the work I did at that job, though being in that cubicle alone was occasionally spooky. 

Sometimes at these jobs, I wished I could interact with my coworkers more. However, there are also benefits to alone time when trying to complete certain types of work. I may not want to be alone all day, though maybe some alone time may be needed to focus. If I am editing a video, I may need a quiet space to watch the footage while I edit where I can avoid interruptions. Meanwhile, there will be other times when I want feedback on the video or might collaborate with someone else to create one. There are also jobs, if we are to be completely honest, that does not take a lot of collaboration to complete. Some jobs just require a lot of tedious computer entry or some type of solitary, digitally based task. In those types of jobs, it still might be nice to learn a new keyboard shortcut or other skill from a coworker or by attending a workshop occasionally, but the day-to-day work may not be the type that requires collaboration. 

There is another benefit to remote work that especially helps disabled people, those with chronic conditions, and even those dealing with a somewhat minor acute condition. Imagine a day where you are feeling somewhat unwell, but not so sick that taking the day off will help. Maybe you are currently experiencing a health issue that is getting in the way of commuting. Maybe you feel completely fine, but have to quarantine due to exposure to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. In those types of situations, remote work makes a huge difference. To give a more specific example, I recently had an infection in my foot that required a small procedure and antibiotics to treat. I had to use crutches and stay off of it for a while, but overall, it was an acute condition that went away relatively quickly. During the time I needed to use the crutches, I could not drive and it would have been very difficult to take public transit. For a large portion of that time, my overall health was good enough to work remotely. Initially, the infection caused fatigue and other symptoms, but a few days later, I only had to stay off my foot and otherwise felt okay. So while it would have been next to impossible to commute, there was no reason I could not have worked at home for any computer-based job. By allowing me to work remotely during health issues like that, I would miss fewer days of work and be able to take better care of myself while working. 

The main issue is whether my employer will allow remote work or not. I have still run into employers who are anti-remote work. Even worse than the employers who are anti-remote work are the ones who claim they will allow it only to deny remote work later on when it is needed. I had an employer who made a big deal during the job interview about having acquired laptops to take home during the pandemic in case there was a day we needed to work remotely. Part of what motivated me to take that job was the potential to work remotely some days, though I knew it would generally be an in-person job. However, I later found out that this employer extremely disliked remote work. At one point while working there, my doctor quarantined me for fear I had COVID-19. I ended up testing negative and only having a small cold that was gone by about the second or third day. At first, my boss let me work remotely, but as I continued to wait on my COVID-19 test results, she changed her mind and made me take unpaid days off. There was no reason why the job could not be continued to be done remotely, except for this employer hated remote work. Over time, this employer kept going back and forth on whether she would offer remote work at all and cited her own personal feelings towards remote work when denying it, making the option unpredictable. 

There is plenty of health and other situations where remote work may be more ideal for an individual than forcing them to work in person. There are unfortunately also plenty of times where someone may not be able to work at all if a remote option is not given, such as in the quarantine example I gave. I could not go back to work while waiting on my test results, even though there were a couple of days when I felt fine and was simply waiting on the results. The job I had at the time was completely computer-based, with systems and software that could be accessed from home. Some people seem to simply fear and distrust working from home for one reason or another, even though it can greatly benefit the employee and employer for certain jobs. 

This is certainly not a comprehensive list of the pros and cons of remote work, though I do hope more remote options are offered going forward. When looking at job listings online, I feel like I have seen fewer and fewer remote jobs being offered over time compared to earlier in the pandemic. I have also seen plenty of job listings that say they will only temporarily be remote to start off and expect the candidate to eventually work in person. My other concern is that there is a significant portion of permanently remote jobs that are for senior-level staff or other higher-level roles. There are plenty of more entry-level jobs that are computer-based and could be done remotely, yet employers push for those staff to be in the office for little reason. I’m tired of having jobs where I sit isolated in an office on a computer without being permitted to work remotely. Why are we doing this to people? 

Personally, I am not against working in person sometimes. I think it depends on the particular job and how my health is doing at the time. There have been some in-person jobs and internships I have deeply enjoyed over the years and also some jobs that I liked doing remotely. I am just specifically frustrated by jobs that are required to be in person when the type of work conducted has no particular reason to be done in person. This issue of not enough jobs being permitted remotely especially hurts those who are disabled, but still able to work. We get stuck in a gray area sometimes where we do not necessarily qualify for Social Security Disability, but may have major obstacles to working in person and do better with remote work. I invite you to look online and read pieces from other people in the disability community about this. I have seen people talking about this from various perspectives throughout the pandemic. I come at this as someone who generally can work in person, though at times, my health does not allow it (usually when going through something acute). Both disabled people and those without disabilities go through times where their health makes it hard to commute to work or makes in-person work difficult for reasons besides commuting. As it is, we could have a separate discussion on how many employers do not give enough sick days and make it hard for people to take off when a health issue gets in the way of work temporarily. At least if remote work were more commonly offered and less looked down upon by employers, it would help employees during times they feel too unwell to work in person or are less mobile (such as when I was on crutches), but able to do remote work still. Not everyone who is disabled may need or prefer remote work since our community is very diverse. It is just important to keep in mind those of us who do need it. Remote work options need to be expanded when we instead see many being taken away in favor of in-person work. I think we need more options to work remotely temporarily when acute issues pop up and jobs that allow permanent remote work. I do not think remote work is for everyone, though there are plenty of people who need it either temporarily or permanently for one reason or another.