In July 2021, I took a trip to the vacation paradise of Ocean City, Md. in the middle of the work week. My internship at the time was hybrid, with optional in-person reporting and almost all business conducted online. As I took phone calls from the beach, did research on the boardwalk after lunch, and finished a report while relaxing after dinner, I felt oddly freed — though I was working all day, it also felt like another day on vacation. My experience represents a possible better future for work — one that is enabled by platforms like Zoom, and if achieved, can be a path towards securing better work-life balance for all employees through the flexibility and integration afforded by virtual work.
The industrial revolution was what condemned much of our world to the dehumanizing and inflexible notion of the “workday” as a unit of compensable hours, and the COVID-19 pandemic has laid the groundwork for transcending this notion. When tied to a physical workspace such as an office, it makes sense that one would want to make working hours consecutive to cut down on commuting time and make shift scheduling easier. However, being beholden to eight to 10-hour blocks of time to work is unwieldy. In order to accommodate the “workday,” one must center their life around performing the duties of employment during the most active hours of the daytime, relegating those hours deemed “personal” time to tired early mornings and exhausted evenings. In a virtual setting, however, the need for a central block of work hours falls away. Scheduling of meetings can be done on a case-by-case basis, with fewer constraints on socially acceptable business hours, allowing for schedules to adapt as the needs of one’s personal life change.
It follows that with a more flexible schedule, where on-site, nine-to-five work is no longer the dominant feature of the day, that flexibility of location is also in play. My experience working from the beach is idealistic, but that location flexibility can just as easily be used to visit relatives, prioritize personal needs such as medical appointments, or engage in one’s community during daylight hours. Ultimately, the centrality of the workday can be dissolved into a set of responsibilities that must occur in concert with other parts of the day. And just as work is removed as the center of the day, the physical workplace will cease to be a central part of a person’s life. Virtual platforms, in their ability to be used universally, liberate us from sitting in an office for eight hours a day and direct us toward a more holistic approach to life.
It is important to note that this is a positive cultural shift that can happen, but not without attentiveness to obvious pitfalls. If nothing else, an eight-hour block workday is restrained. As Assistant Opinion Editor Christofer Robles argues, opening the door to a wider array of work hours could also be an avenue for employers to extract more labor from their workers, cutting into their personal time. Given an expansion of virtual work, this avenue is probable and likely the default unless specific cultural norms evolve to protect against it. In particular, we must emphasize employees’ ability to assert boundaries on their time and normalize accountability measures to ensure these boundaries are respected. Without these crucial steps, a more flexible workday will just become a longer workday.
Virtual meeting platforms like Zoom are technologies, and like all technologies, their benefit to society is heavily influenced by the social and economic norms that surround their use. Embracing virtual work as the key to more temporally and geographically flexible work that is integrated with employee lifestyles does not guarantee everyone will get to work on the beach each day. However, there is an optimal future of flexible work out there, and we are equipped to reach it.
Christopher Lidard is a sophomore from outside Baltimore, Md. A computer science concentrator and tech policy enthusiast, his columns focus on technology issues on campus and at large. He can be reached at email@example.com.