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Companies Can Help Fight Inequality. It Starts with More ‘Remote Workers’

November 18, 2019, 4:46 PM UTC

The continued rise of economic inequality worldwide is a dire issue for social stability, and for companies who rely on a healthy consumer base. But business leaders who want to make a difference may find it challenging to address such a broad societal issue while also serving their own bottom line.

Stephane Kasriel, CEO of staffing company Upwork, argued at the Fortune Global Forum in Paris on Monday for a policy that could be a win-win: companies should accommodate, and even encourage, a more remote workforce.

Kasriel’s co-panelist, McKinsey managing partner Kevin Sneader, pointed out that job growth in places like the U.S. is often driven by a small number of cities, creating big incentives for workers to move there. That, in turn, ratchets up the cost of living, exacerbating inequality in those hot spots.

Of course, remote work options largely apply to workers like programmers, marketers, or designers. And those so-called ‘knowledge workers’ may face less economic pressure than service and retail workers, who both have generally lower wages, and need to be closer to jobs wherever they can find them.

Kasriel pointed out that moving high-end knowledge jobs out of major cities would in fact benefit those workers who have to be local, because it would reduce pressure on the cost of living, and provide other benefits.

“If you let just 10 or 20% of people who currently live in Paris move to [the provinces], that will have a nonlinear impact on congestion, on pollution, on the cost of living,” Kasriel said, “and will open up a lot of space to allow people that are currently very far away from Paris to be able to come back inside of the city.” So remote workers enjoying the fresh air in Auvergne would actually be making life easier for restaurant staff in the Champs-Élysées.

The event’s setting drove home the importance of the issue. It was in part the cost of fuel—and the threat of an unpopular new tax—that triggered France’s populist Yellow Vest protests, whose first anniversary was Sunday. Fuel costs fall hardest on lower-wage workers, who have been increasingly pushed to outer suburbs and subjected to long commutes because of rising urban rents.

Despite these dynamics, resistance to remote work is still a reality worldwide—and, Kasriel argued, out of step with reality. “If your office has more than two floors, people aren’t working across floors,” said Kasriel. “They Slack each other, they Zoom each other, they Skype each other. So fundamentally, whether you have two floors in the same building, or two floors in two different cities, it makes no difference.”

“Particularly French companies,” Kasriel observed, “are still run more traditionally, with this idea that you meet face to face, and face time matters . . . and that needs to change.”

Meanwhile, openness to remote work can also help companies address the challenge of finding local talent. “It’s so hard to find talent because you’re looking in the same place as everyone else,” said Kasriel. “In San Francisco, if you’re not Facebook or Google and you need a machine learning expert, it’s completely impossible.”

But Sneader cautioned that McKinsey has found that the workers themselves, even younger ones, can be resistant to remote work. “You actually see with some of the Millenials, they like being together, they like coworking spaces, they see it as part of the social psychology of work,” Sneader said.

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