In 2000, the world survived Y2K only to be hit by the dot com crash. Some of us who were still in university wondered what the job market would look like when we graduated. We heard tales of recruiting parties, in major tech hubs, where people handed out resumes. The lead up to that bubble came from companies that believed they could sustain themselves with services that were free to consumers, and supported by advertisements. Services like Juno provided free e-mail and dial-up in exchange for displaying ads. Long before the blockchain, we had useless currencies such as Beenz.
The early 2000s led to a lot of consolidation in tech industries. Some of those companies are now turning into venture capitalists, investing in newer startups to hedge their bets against the next big thing. We are in an era of overvalued companies, that are heavily leveraged with investment or debt. When this house of cards eventually does collapse, those venture capitalists, along with angel investors and startup incubators, will be in the unique position to cut off anything they view as non-profitable or unsustainable. We may see large tech investment firms getting to decide which companies will live and die, similar to banks in the 2008 financial collapse.
The events of 2020 caused a lot of tech workers to transition to fully remote work, and move out of the big cities into small town America. When my cousin first took a job out west in the late 90s, he told me if he had waited six more months to buy a house, he wouldn’t have been able to afford one. The housing boom around tech areas from the 90s has exploded to encompass entire nations. People are paying big city prices for mortgages in smaller cities and towns. When the tech bubble pops, some people may struggle to find remote work at the same pay grade. Local IT jobs will not pay the rates these remote workers were used to, and there is the possibility we will see a considerable amount of engineers in the tech sector struggle to pay for mortgages. Investment companies may start buying more houses, and renting them back to people. A decline in homeownership would be a great blow to individualism and autonomy.
Office vs Remote
I had worked remotely previous to 2020, for a few different companies. My time in the office varied from 20% to 50%, and was mostly left up to my discretion. An English woman I worked with once asked me, “Who are you?” as I walked in one morning. “I work here,” I replied. “You still work here? I thought they fired you. Well, it’s nice of you to grace us with your presence.” Of course, both of us worked remotely most of the week, since the majority of our team was on the other side of the country in New York City. When we did come on-site, this type of playful banter built a comradery with the Seattle staff. When we hired junior developers, I made it a point to come in more often, to help with on-boarding.
When it comes to my personal efficiency, I do think I’m just as effective, if not more so, working remotely. Part of the increased efficiency comes from the loss of cubicles. I hated cubes, just as much as any Dilbert fan in the early 2000s. However, I didn’t know how much worse it could be. From 2012 until 2020, I only worked in places with open-plan offices. I could always see all of my neighbors, and never had any privacy. Compared to cubicles, open work spaces are a deeper circle of hell. Managers may have made up some bullshit about open offices leading to more collaboration, but everyone knew the real reason for such layouts was the high price of office real estate in large cities and downtown areas. No matter how much money a company pulled it, giving engineers more room never seemed to be a priority.
Suffice to say, there are a lot of advantages to not being crammed together like sardines in places where I had to constantly wear headphones in order to focus. However, there are some things I miss about commuting to the office. I miss my morning bicycle rides, zooming down Milwaukee Avenue with hundreds of other cyclists in Chicago. In the winters when it was too cold to ride, I’d listen to podcasts or read books, while stuffed into rail cars crammed with people. Even though no one really interacted at 8 a.m. on the Blue Line, the eerie silence felt like a shared comradery of people from all different walks of life, waking up every day, and going to our jobs.
I do prefer remote work now, however I spent over a decade and a half in the office (excluding some short sabbaticals). I do currently work with young people, just starting off their career, who are fully remote. They are bright, brilliant and impressive with their skills, yet I cannot help but think I would not have fared as well. I think back to my first job out of university, working directly under the IT director, for a small debt collection firm. I was handling both software development and system administration. There was a lot I learned about the depth and breadth needed in small, up-and-coming businesses. My short time in call center technical support taught me that I never wanted to be in customer service again. My work in health insurance, my first position that focused on software engineering, introduced me to a lot of different people, with a variety of backgrounds. Lunches with co-workers, company parties and casual conversations with my cube mates, all contributed to my growth as an engineer, and as a person. Although I do admit, I could have gone without listening to a workmate, through the cubical wall, making an appointment with his urologist (who was named, I shit you not, Dr. Weelock).
Even though I’m generally not fond of people, I’m not sure if I would have done well in my field if I had started out fully remote. Even for someone starting out in a field like mine, there are a considerable amount of social skills learned via interactions at the office. Coworker interactions, conflict management and group design still occur with remote workers, but the dynamics do feel different in ways that are difficult to quantify.
Remote schooling has been an absolute, unmitigated disaster1. Teachers I know personally have told me their students have fallen behind across the board. They’ve mentioned how the masks lead to a noticeable impairment in language and communication skills. Primary and secondary education is a clear area where distance learning has left many people behind.
As an experienced developer, transitioning to more and more remote work made sense over the years. Working remote also made more sense with offices which already had split teams, sprawled across the country or various countries. Maybe I’m wrong, and I would have done fine starting off fully remote. I knew a graduate student who held full time remote jobs with IBM, in the early 2000s. Only time will tell if this up-and-coming generation of Computer Scientists will flourish in an industry that has heavily shifted to remote workers. However, I do think this push may end up leaving behind the many talented workers who benefit from being in the office. I also think we may see further divides between those who commute to the office every morning, versus those who log in to the office from the comfort of their homes.
The End of Venture Capital Funding
In April, Netflix’s stock value plummeted once it revealed it had lost over 200,000 subscribers in its Q1 report2. This came only months after it raised its subscription prices3. Although, Netflix net income may have been growing exponentially over the past few years4, the cost of its content has also grown considerably, depleting their cash runway5. Investors expected Uber to begin turning a profit with self-driving vehicles, which is arguably a dead end technology. It’s not just newcomers like Uber, Netflix and Tesla that are mired in debt. Dinosaurs like AT&T, IBM and Softbank are barely treading water6 as our world economy prepares to enter a rescission7.
There was never a real reckoning for the 2008 housing crisis in the United States. Banks were considered too big to fail. At the time, I was entirely against any government bailouts. Those bailouts weren’t intended for people like me with barely any retirement. It was meant for our parents, who had watched a considerable amount of their 401ks disappear. It was meant for larger banks to swallow up smaller competitors with the government’s blessings and tax breaks. The bailouts created an artificial windbreak. It made middle-aged working Americans content, while dumping record profits into the hands of bankers and devaluing the future of the youth. It kicked the can down the road, without rooting out the real cause, and left the aftermath to another generation.
We may not have another market crash for five years. Maybe there will be one next week. It’s foolhardy to predict the market, but I do think a second dot com era bust is coming. With so many companies leveraged by debt and propped up by venture capital funding, we may be in another era like 2008, except it will be the big tech companies who will require government rescue. Smaller shops wouldn’t have a hope for any bailout money authorized by congress. Will Netflix, Twitter or Microsoft be declared too big to fail? A considerable amount of profitable tech companies are also startup investors. Could their positions allow them to decide which startups are worthy of saving, and which should be bought out and absorbed into their own organizations? Would such a bust bring an end to the era of remote work, or will the secondary effects of this era continue though the next economic cycle?
Electronic Mediums and Self-Censorship
People speak differently when every conversation happens over an electronic medium. Conversations over video calls tend to be more directed and to the point. Casual coffee conversations become something that must be scheduled. Globally, people are mode fractured over belief and ideology than ever before. In 2018, while at a work lunch in Chicago, I listened to a Canadian co-worker talk about a controversy in her home province over a transgender male-to-female who wanted to use the women’s locker room. My co-worker said she didn’t believe the transgender person should be allowed to use the women’s facilities. Regardless of your views on transgenders or pronoun usage, I think many would agree this viewpoint is one that could easily end someone’s career. It is something that you could only express in person, outside the view of cameras. Even in person, today, one would do so at personal risk.
The tech world is becoming more polarized politically. Questions about diversity are often a political litmus test. When I was growing up, people on their lunch breaks would sometimes be seen reading their Bibles in the break rooms. I had a manager who often praised everything about President Reagan. Today, self-censorship is on the rise. Most of those without orthodoxy privilege8 often want to keep their heads down and away from the firing line. Bravery is something that can be challenged and mitigated by increasing salaries. After all, “Dignity and an empty sack is worth the sack9.”
The Coming Tide
A close friend of mine, who has managed journalists and editors in the newsprint industry for years, told me he didn’t think remote work was sustainable long term. He fears the segregation from a physical workplace could lead to mental instability. Elon Musk gave an ultimatum to German executives, that they must return to the office for at least 40 hours a week (Musk is a big fan of overtime10). Elon stated this was for equality with factory workers, a stance that is being challenged by unionized employees11. This comes on the heals of a leaked memo that Musk was considering laying off 10% of his workforce in preparation for coming economic hardships12.
There is a new dot com bubble, and it will eventually break. Those who believe the legacy media and defend the weakest government to ever take power will be blindsided. For the rest of us, the coming economic reality is already creeping up. Will the coming hard times bring just a reduction, or a total end to remote work? Are the remote work advocates correct when they say there is nothing meaningful to gain from returning to the office13, or are they simply being tone-deaf to those who cannot work remotely: those who must struggle to choose between food and fuel?
People should probably prepare themselves for a myriad of possible outcomes. Those who do not put in the effort to make friends and grow their in local communities, especially those who just moved to new towns and cities, may find themselves in fierce competition if remote work loses its luster to employers. Those who are not prepared to take jobs at local market values may find themselves unable to afford housing. Some may even find themselves having to choose between buying food and charging their Tesla’s. They may even be dumb enough to tell their neighbors about their first world problems, and be reputed with stories of tree cutters who were laid off because their company couldn’t afford to fuel their trucks.
We may never see a return to the ratio of in-office vs remote workers from prior to 2019. Yet, I’m still not sure if the current environment is sustainable long-term. As much as I prefer working remote, and despite the fact that my current career path is dependent on the continued growth of remote work, I understand the universe tends to make corrections when things are out of balance for too long. Remote work increases the disconnect between high income office workers and laborers. It does so as those office workers leave the cities to live next to a working class several of them voted against.
The Results Are In for Remote Learning: It Didn’t Work. 5 June 2020. Hobbs. Hawkins. The Wall Street Journal. Archive ↩
Netflix raises monthly subscription prices in U.S., Canada. 14 January 2022. Richwine. Reuters. ↩
Netflix One Question: Is It Losing Money Or Making Money?. 1 May 2022. Trefis. Forbes. ↩
The US will tumble into a recession as inflation soars, 70% of top economists say. 13 June 2022. Robertson. Markets Insider. MSN. ↩
There are way easier places to work, but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week. 26 November 2018. Tweet. ↩
Tesla Is Cutting 10% of Workforce, Elon Musk Says He Has a ‘Super Bad Feeling’ About the Economy. 3 June, 2020. Rella. Entrepreneur. ↩