September 23, 2021

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WFH for real

I worked remotely under normal (i.e., non-pandemic) circumstances for almost 10 years. It was weird at first, but slowly I found a routine and rhythm. The routine changed many times over the years, and there were plenty of less than ideal working conditions. 

For example, I recall flying from London to Denver once, crammed in one of the middle seats, writing a newsletter not unlike this one. I worked in restaurants, bars, hospital rooms, and more coffee shops than I’ll ever remember. I worked on noisey city buses surrounded by inebriated passengers. I worked inside, outside, with varying states of mind and quality of wifi. 

The point is, not only did I learn how to work anywhere, I learned how to be productive anywhere. And if I can be productive anywhere, I have a hunch that anyone can. One of humanity’s best features is its adaptability.

So I pretty much agree with this entire Wall Street Journal article that basically says: “You probably don’t know what working remotely is like.” It’s true! Most people don’t. 

Unfortunately, most people’s experience working remotely has been under duress from a global plague. It has meant being trapped at home, pseudo-homeschooling the kids, endless Zoom meetings, and having very limited human interaction. Working remotely for real—in my experience, and many others’—is not like this. 

Which is a shame! Remote work—without all the pandemic baggage—has many advantages that I think many people want. Flexibility, autonomy, the opportunity to focus— these are all things that people say they want in their jobs. As things slowly return to normal, they might actually get that chance. 

But because we’re in this weird phase where many businesses and people are eager to get to the office, the opportunity to experience the benefits of real remote work might get snuffed out. And that’s unfortunate, because working in the office is a mixed bag, as this Atlantic article by Derek Thompson explains:

“Hard work,” for me, is reading, researching, calling people, transcribing conversations, and writing articles. For others, it might include managing employees, working in Excel or PowerPoint, or reading and writing a zillion emails. (This kind of hard work, I should note, doesn’t have to be physically difficult.) If the past year and a half has taught us anything, it’s that white-collar workers can do hard work from home just about as well as they can do it in the office—and maybe even better, precisely because their colleagues aren’t interrupting them.

Soft work is different. It’s the vague middle space of weekday activity that isn’t hard work but also isn’t not-work. (You know what not-work is: calling your dentist at noon, getting lost on YouTube, falling down a Wikipedia rabbit hole about the mating habits of seahorses. It’s all fine; just don’t call it work.) Soft work is getting coffee with a co-worker. It’s catching up about the NFL on Monday morning. If networking, schmoozing, gossiping, and mildly annoying people on your floor with “Hey, does this idea suck?” are species of behavior, soft work is the genus that contains them.

So when I say “anyone can work and be productive anywhere” I mean: they can work and be productive anywhere so long as they have the freedom to decide how, when, and where they do it. That includes being in the office when they want to be! But it also means letting go of some antiquated notions about face time, productivity, and workplace culture.

Remote work hasn’t really gotten a fair shot. And it may not ever get one.

Tax experts have options

Here’s a New York Times article about how some tax professionals from big accounting firms went to work for the Treasury Department, wrote rules that were beneficial to their clients, and then went back to their firms and got big promotions. It’s the revolving door problem that sometimes gets talked about but doesn’t have any obvious solutions. Banning government workers from going to the private sector isn’t realistic, and even cooling off periods are limited in their effectiveness. Is a five-year cooling off period really better than two years? 

Then, sometimes people say, “Well, people that go to work for the government should be committed to serving the public,” and I think that’s fine, but it also limits the pool of talent. 

Like, I’m sure the IRS and tax authorities across the country gladly hire people who are experts in the private sector and want to try their hand at public service, even if they aren’t zealously civic-minded. If they wait for the ideal Mx Smith, Esq. CPA to come to Washington for each open job, none of those jobs will get filled. So they take their chances on someone who’s made a good living being a tax expert of one stripe or another to help write rules, who might someday go back to the private sector and make even more money because they now have valuable government experience.

But some of them might not! It’s not difficult to imagine a talented tax person who is curious about public service getting into the work, writing better and clever tax rules, and sticking with it. Sure, it’s not the most popular career path, and most people might go back to big paychecks at their old firms. But I’m sure the government agencies are willing to roll the dice in order to find the folks that won’t.  

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Caleb Newquist Caleb is Editor-at-Large at Gusto. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Going Concern, the one-of-a-kind voice on the accounting profession, serving in the role for 9 years. Prior to Going Concern, Caleb worked as a CPA for nearly 6 years in New York and Denver. He lives in Denver with his wife, two daughters, and two cats.
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