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October 20, 2022
Legal Corner
Michael Schubach

During HITEC 2022 in Orlando, I was a member of a panel discussion with four hospitality chief information officers, moderated by industry veteran and President of Hospitality Technology Consulting, John Burns. The panel John selected produced an interesting mix of personalities with a wide variety of viewpoints, based on significant differences in our geographic reach, years of service and the hotel brands that we support. Lively exchanges ensued, and that’s as it should be. A panel discussion without any diversity of opinion is simply a public service announcement, and a monotonous one at that.

Nonetheless, the discussion topic that resonated long after the presentation concluded was one on which we all agreed: the quiet earthquake rocking the hospitality industry is a labor market that has been shaken to its foundation in the wake of the pandemic and is in the process of reconstituting itself into something entirely new. Lessons are still being learned from the COVID canary in the coal mine, and they are a good-news-bad-news paradox: on the plus side, we’re fighting the battle with extremely adroit hardware, software, and AI assistance. Thank you, technology and geometric progression.
On the minus side, we’ve smashed the sound barrier of disease spread. If a virus wants to travel today, it simply hops a few planes and arrives everywhere in the world in a matter of hours. Thank you again, technology and geometric progression.

COVID was billed as a “once in a century event” and the life lesson there is that it’s very hard to prepare for something you’ve never experienced, and for which history seems not applicable. The more time-separated we are from historical events, the more we underestimate their challenge and overestimate our advancement. We grant ourselves the luxury of dismissiveness because the last one happened in the “olden days,” and it’s a scientific fact that everyone in the olden days was dumber than dirt. Today we’re just too smart and sophisticated to let some pesky little flu variant radically alter the world or cause a social revolution. (And smug; did I mention smug?)

Consider the workplace impact that was born of the pandemic. The most obvious issue confronting us is that the “remote work” phenomenon has become a widespread new normal, especially for IT professionals. There were no remote work life lessons from the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918; in those olden days, a “cottage industry” didn’t involve a laptop and an ISP connection. But we can look back over the past three or four decades to consider the early evolution of today’s professional landscape.

Beginning in the 1980s, the work-from-afar paradigm was referred to as “telecommuting,” and as email was becoming a ‘thing,’ so was the idea of being able to answer it from outside the office. The “office-less office” was being touted as the wave of the future, but brick-and-mortar offices didn’t go away, and neither did the brick-and-mortar mentality. Working remote remained more of a temporary alternative that accommodated out-of-office conditions such as business travel or a broken leg. It was just not the way business was conducted back then.

Despite the slow start, the trend steadily increased. By 2010, 13.4 million Americans worked at least one day a week from home. Then came COVID and the new reality – it’s now estimated that by 2025, 36.2 million Americans will work from home, approximately 25 percent of today’s labor force.

Pros and Cons of Remote Work

As you would expect, there are both good and bad things to be said about working remote, both pre- and post-COVID. First, the positive: working from home eliminates commute time and gasoline consumption; it’s cheaper and easier on the employee and the environment. Second, remote work often provides an ideal setting to power through solo tasks that require dedicated concentration in a single-threaded, heads-down approach.

Less positive are some of the unintended consequences: remote work is difficult to supervise – many managers don’t feel they get the same degree of effort on remote days, especially when during conference calls you can hear the washer, dryer, and television. Of course, the counter to that is the argument that being able to knock out small domestic chores breaks up the day, clears your head, and gives you a little bit more “me time” in the evening, which leads to a better work/life balance, which virtually every employer claims to support.

But, other serious challenges to remote work include the lack of mentoring, collaboration, and employee growth. Also, studies indicate that career burn-out happens faster for remote workers. “Many hands make light work” comes to mind when one thinks of tackling complex challenges, but there’s a reason you’ve never heard anyone say the same thing about having many conference calls.

Then there’s the issue of how many days per week one should work remote. Employer attitudes run the gamut from everyone being fully remote to attempting to reestablish pre-COVID normalcy. Some ask for one, two or three days per week in the office, depending on what you do and how well you do it in solitary confinement.

There is one statistic out there that reinforces an employer’s suspicion that remote work is less productive than the remote workers would have you believe. See if you can finish this sentence: “The two days of the work week that are most frequently requested as remote days are _______ and _______.”

If you guessed ‘Monday’ and ‘Friday,’ then congratulations: you are not in a coma. If each remote day is equally productive as any other day, then why would the days that flank the weekend be the most popular days to work remote? Could the answer possibly be that the average worker wants the weekend to begin earlier and/or last longer?

Now let me turn the tables and advocate the employee perspective: Why might workers push back so hard on the work/ life balance? Why would they feel the need to swing the pendulum toward a “less productive workday”? Again, we need to pause and look back, except further this time... about a century.

The social norm for the salaried professional who has the option of working remote is the five-day, 40-hour week. That hasn’t always been the case – at the close of the nineteenth century, American factory workers averaged 100 labor hours each week. The defining moments of our modern standard in American labor only began in the twentieth century. The first documented use of the five-day work week in the US took place at a cotton mill in New England in 1908. The American weekend grew out of the objective of allowing observant Jewish employees not to work on Shabbat, the Sabbath, and observant Christians to have their Sunday day of rest.

The next significant step forward was taken by none other than inventor and business magnate, Henry Ford. In September 1926, the man who revolutionized manufacturing with the movable assembly line took his factories from seven-day workweeks down to five days and shortened the working day to eight hours. A dozen years later, the U.S. Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, introducing a minimum wage of 40 cents per hour and “time-and-a-half” overtime pay when people worked more than 40 hours in one week.

What’s the connection? For more than 80 years, American workers have considered five eight-hour days as the equitable division of work and play, of home and office. But for the last 40 of those years, technology has been steadily whittling away at that balance. Through a constant barrage of email, text messages and phone calls that can’t be ignored or silenced, salaried professionals often bear an unspoken demand that they be on duty at a moment’s notice. No individual or group of workers is being singled out – we’re all doing it and we’re all getting it done to us.

But remote work technology has further blurred those lines. In the olden days, the office phone wasn’t in your pocket or purse; interoffice correspondence didn’t land in your hand while you were at the movies or asleep in bed. Sure, a handsome paycheck may be attached to the deal, but so is the presumption of casual availability around the clock. 

Millennials are now pushing back hard against these traditional paradigms, being aided and abetted by new post-COVID realities. If, as an employer, you are looking for associates who will go above and beyond, then you better come to the party ready to go below and within.
The 40-hour week is likely to survive, but with fewer, longer days. Sure, salaried professionals will always face those days where they need to burn the nine o’clock oil – that will always be on the table – but four 10-hour days with a three-dayweekend every week is a very viable option for the new standard. Another possibility is nine nine-hour days over two weeks, with alternating two- and three-day weekends. These variations seem like reasonable compromises for the modern mental fatigue that comes from having to wear an electronic leash every business day.

Time to come to grips: things are different and likely to remain so; both the genie and the toothpaste are out of their respective bottle and tube. Our industry will certainly rise to the challenge, but the way we used to back in the olden days of the twenty-first century.

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