I Can Never Go Back to the Office, But at What Cost?

Flexibility gained and freedom lost?

Save some money, lose some money?

That may be the legacy of the freelance and work-from-home movements sparked by the current pandemic and economic climate. We are all working-from-home in larger numbers than ever before, yet we are being watched even closer than when we were physically in the office. We saved money on gasoline and eating out at restaurants, but the tax man is finding new ways to get back that lost revenue.

Home is where the office is at

Having worked from home for 10 months now and been a freelancer for the last 6 of those months, I can easily say I never want to work in an office again. I enjoy working with people, and I continue to do so remotely. But the flexibility is something I don't think I could give up at this point.

Case in point, I just returned from a walk on a beautiful November day in Northern Virginia. You can't beat that. Now its back to work, a bit more recharged.

I'm not alone. Of all the freelancers I talk to and asked what they like best about the whole deal, the number one answer conclusively is flexibility. Granted, I no longer have small children in the house, so I know and can relate to a degree with those who do. I know for folks in this category that working-from-home is no picnic.

It almost seems in these cases like you are forced into a binary choice. Do I help my children with distance learning or do I perform my work obligations? I do not envy that situation, and I hope all school-aged children are able to safely get back to the classroom soon. Its fairly clear by now that 100% remote learning is simply too much of a challenge for all involved.

Employer Surveillance

If we are paying someone to work for us, we want an assurance that the work is being performed in a cost-effective manner. This is a natural tendency, and of central importance to many corporations.

Another tendency, whether accurate or not, is that our physical presence in an office building enriches our confidence in the work being performed. Sure, I could be standing at the water cooler or near the coffee pot chatting it up with colleagues, but the mere fact I am in the office reinforces in some manner that I am meeting the needs of the business.

The Power of Random Inspection

Much of this stems from the fact that although your boss doesn't sit in your office with you while you work, he or she could drop in at any moment. A technique used by some organizations is to not announce which team/project/group is reporting status at a given meeting. A team is "randomly" chosen, and thus every team needs to be prepared as if they will be on point to go through their operations.

This is the power of random inspection. You don't have enough resources to do everything, you just have to make clear the potential for a given inspection to occur. This is enough to change the behavior of the participants. It doesn't catch everything, but it makes a dramatic difference.

Changing Monitoring Solutions

Now, many employees are at home and some of these physical reassurances are not there. Random inspection is no longer very random. Monitoring solutions need to change and adapt. In the short-term, there is flexibility and a period of transition. Over the long term, expect to see different forms of monitoring.

One of the contracts I work on requires me to install software on my Mac that periodically takes pictures and keeps track of what applications are running. There are a number of similar software solutions out there used for freelance and contract workers.

Thus, the flexibility I gained comes at a loss of privacy. If you use the same computer for work and personal items at different times, who knows what the software can or can't do. You are required to give it fairly free-ranging authority on your desktop. Keeping a desktop (physical machine or virtual) for each portion of your life is recommended to partition the monitoring associated with work from everything else.

Tracing, Tracing, and More Tracing

The other day I went to the doctor's office, but it had been quite a while since I visited. I knew roughly where it was but forgot exactly which building I was going to. Leaving later than I had hoped and in a bit of a rush, I punched the address into my phone to bring up the map. My phone (Android) then prompted me. are you going to this particular doctor's office? It said it was asking for contact tracing purposes. That was the first time I had seen that.

Contact tracing by pure memory is bound to be highly imprecise. Phones however could do quite a good job, assuming most people have theirs with them. These days, that's a fairly good assumption.

You will likely see more wearables performing contact tracing. Employers can use these products for mandated or voluntary medical tracing purposes, but also for their own surveillance needs. If the facade of privacy was a fallacy before, any vanishing remnants of it will also soon be gone.

The Financial Angle

With so many people not driving to an office, going out to lunch, or shopping on their way back, tax revenue is down. You don't need to fill your gas tank as often and you eat out at restaurants much less. That's a tremendous amount of lost sales tax revenue for the government.

Expect to see companies reduce their physical footprint as well. With more remote employees, it doesn't make sense to pay for vast amounts of office space. Thus, property tax revenue will become another drain on the government and overall financial ecosystem.

If there is one thing that governments are good at however, it is making up for lost tax revenue. Expect municipalities and governments to create other taxes that impact you as you work in your home office. I have already seen mention of new taxes proposed for remote workers.

If the government can find a way to tax you even when you die (via the estate tax), surely they can find a method to extract tax revenue from you in your home office.

Looking Ahead

Be sure to keep an eye on the emerging monitoring and tax trends. To the extent you can, always bifurcate work and personal digital resources.

We here at Freelante will help make sure you stay on top of the situation, so be sure to subscribe below if you haven't done so already. The only thing I know for sure is that it would be very difficult for me to go back to the office. It's hard to imagine at this point. But I've learned never say never.

17 views0 comments