The pandemic created a rift between those who could easily shift to remote work and those who could not. What are the responsibilities of the former?
In various editorials and COVID-related commentary, a new term emerged during the pandemic: the "laptop class," describing the class of people who were able to work remotely and maintain their employment with relatively little personal risk to their health and livelihood. This is opposed to other workers that needed to perform their jobs in person, ranging from healthcare and emergency responders to the dozens of people that enabled the laptop class to hole up in their homes, from all manner of drivers for UPS, DoorDash and Amazon, to grocery store clerks and taxi drivers.
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In some of the more cynical editorializing, the laptop class was portrayed as a new aristocracy, secure in our castles to count our riches while hiding behind our screens and webcams as the new underclass risked their very lives to bring us sushi, PlayStations and Häagen-Dazs. While class warfare is often a cheap journalistic trick to garner clicks and incite the keyboard warriors of Twitter, there is an element of truth to the idea that remote work allowed a portion of the population, myself and many readers included, to live in relative comfort and security. In contrast, others faced financial disaster and exposure to health risks we were personally unwilling to take.
Rediscovering technology ethics
For my generation of technology leaders, ethics was little more than a mandatory course or two in university that was viewed as some combination of unimportant and irrelevant to the technical underpinnings of our work. However, ethics is becoming an increasingly essential and fraught element of our jobs. Perhaps the ethical concerns around areas like social media and workforce automation moved slowly enough that they could be brushed aside. However, the global pandemic and emergence of the laptop class have put them front and center.
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While it's easy to be swept up in the glee of basking in the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, it's worth assessing how we performed in transitioning our workforce to remote work. At the micro-level of our organizations, we should be evaluating how we executed our pandemic mitigations both from the familiar technical perspective and the more challenging ethical perspective:
- Did the ease of shifting some positions to remote work cause them to escape hardship versus others that were more difficult to execute remotely?
- Were efforts to remote-enable various parts of the employee base focused on ease of transition, the importance of the job or a more haphazard approach?
- Did we create ethical dilemmas for some roles, such that employees perceived that they needed to put their health at risk in order to keep their job? For example, was the junior hardware support staffer expected to commute into the office to perform his or her job, "or else," while the CIO could comfortably work from his or her vacation home?
Incorporate ethics into your planning
It's probably a bit unpleasant, but savvy organizations are revisiting the dark days early on in the pandemic and using that experience to refine and enhance planning for future business disruptions. It could be a century before the next global lockdown or it could be this winter, so capturing key lessons and adjustments will allow for a less-chaotic experience in the future.
As part of that process, include an ethical dimension in your planning. Plan for how you can reduce situations where employees feel forced to choose between their health and economic well-being, and consider providing guidelines to laptop class employees on their roles and responsibilities to their colleagues who do not have the luxury of easy remote work. Set guidelines and expectations for service levels that incorporate the risks of the personnel involved in meeting those service levels.
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If your organization is large enough to interact with local or national policymakers, use your seat at the table to shape discussions on how the laptop class can and should interact with and protect the people who make it possible for us to work remotely with little impact to our overall quality of life. As technology leaders, not only do we have an informed perspective on the matter, but we can shape discussions for the better versus allowing a descent into low-grade class warfare.
As individuals, it's also worth examining our response to the pandemic and revising our personal guidelines on our expectations and interactions with others who are unable to work from home. For some of us, that might be as simple as doing a better job expressing gratitude to the dozens of people who make remote work possible, or it may be a complete rethinking the services we use and how we consume them. Wherever you sit along that spectrum, if you value a functioning, kind society, it's worth at least some passing reflection on how each of us makes the laptop class a valuable part of society rather than a loathsome new aristocracy.
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