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Trillion dollar question: Will workers share in the savings from remote work?

January 15, 2021, 2:19 PM UTC

Remember Tim Ferriss’s best-selling advice book The 4-Hour Workweek from about 10 years ago? Ferriss tried to make the case that people would be much happier if they opted out of corporate life, moved to less stressful locales, and worked a lot less.

Brilliant title aside, it probably wasn’t a blueprint for all, or even most, people. But I’ve been thinking about Ferriss’s underlying themes as the pandemic has blown up assumptions about where and how we work. Ferriss was ahead of the curve in pointing out the benefits of telecommuting, automating routine tasks, living a mobile lifestyle, and holding fewer–or even no–meetings.

Super-techie Tom Evslin has been blogging about the future of work lately too. It’s not quite the 4-hour workweek. Instead, Evslin has landed on 25 hours, or 50 hours for a couple, as being just as productive as the old 40-hour work week in the office. A lot of time at the office was wasted on kibitzing, web surfing, unnecessary meetings and travel, and commuting, he notes. Working at home allowed people to fit in all of the errands, appointments, and child-rearing tasks that became almost impossible when stuck at the office.

Not everyone in the economy can benefit from the shift, however:

“A danger in this utopian WFH future is that it widens the gap between those who can work from home and those who can’t – a category which includes most essential workers,” he writes. “There must be higher hourly wages for those who must work away from home.”

On the same wavelength, we ran an essay at Fortune by Dropbox CEO Drew Houston on Tuesday. A study by Dropbox confirmed Evslin’s theory, finding knowledge workers typically lost 28% of the day at the office to distractions. At home, however, 36% of workers felt more focused. Reducing those distractions could improve productivity by $1.2 trillion. Houston seized on the results to overhaul Dropbox’s entire work structure, encouraging remote work for focused tasks and office work for collaboration.

“Workers said they were able to focus better at home than they were before,” he wrote. “But they also feel disconnected and said it’s harder to begin new projects with multiple collaborators while remote. Distributed work lets us redefine ‘the workplace’ to mean ‘anywhere work happens,’ and get the best of both worlds.”

Ironically, the day after we ran Houston’s essay, Houston’s company executed one of the old-fashioned, less desirable ways to become more productive: It laid off 315 people, or more than 10% of its workforce. “Our Virtual First policy means we require fewer resources to support our in-office environment, so we’re scaling back that investment and redeploying those resources,” Houston wrote in a memo to employees.

There’s an infamous and pretty depressing graph you’ve probably seen before showing the gains in U.S. productivity over the past 70 years compared to average wages. Since the 1970s, productivity has been rising sharply while wages stagnated, breaking the earlier trend when they rose in unison.

The same struggle is playing out with the shift to remote work. There will be huge cost savings in real estate and overhead for companies, massive loss of jobs for the micro-economies that served office workers, and giant investments required in new technology to equip homes. Just how the fruits of the shift are distributed will be a key question for businesses and workers for years to come.

Fortune will be closed on Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr Day. Data Sheet will be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Vaporware man walking. Virtual CES has come a close and probably proved the value of in-person CES as much as anything else. Engadget had a solid wrap up of the best products. You might also enjoy The Verge's investigation of what happened to last year's favorite products (spoiler alert: many were never seen again). Speaking of best products, Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo says new Mac laptops coming this year will do away with the dreaded Touch Bar. Huzzah.

Tell you what I want, what I really, really want. On Wall Street, shares of fancy used clothing market Poshmark jumped 141% in its initial public offering, valuing the company at over $3 billion. In M&A world, Google closed its $2 billion acquisition of Fitbit (despite not getting approval yet from the U.S. DoJ), while Cisco almost doubled its original takeover offer for optical gear maker Acacia to $4.5 billion.

Inoculation is everything. A coalition of nonprofits, tech and healthcare companies including Microsoft, Salesforce, and Oracle is developing a "vaccination passport" app for smartphones. Consumers could use the app when boarding a plane or entering a stadium to prove they had been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Streaming towards justice. Netflix released its first ever diversity and inclusion report and showed progress in hiring women and people of color. Last year, women made up 47% of the company's global workforce, up from 40% in 2017. Black U.S. employees doubled to 8% over the same period and hispanic U.S. workers gained two percentage points to reach 8%.

Undo. I was too clever by a half in Wednesday's essay when I tried to describe all of Intel's CEOs before Bob Swan, including famed sales and marketing guy Paul Otellini, with the phrase "had a background in engineering and science." Though Otellini had overseen some processor development, he did not have an engineering background, as many of you wrote in to point out.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Padmasree Warrior has spent most of her career running technology operations at companies including Cisco, Motorola, and Tesla rival Nio. Now her latest startup, Fable, is all about reading. Fortune senior writer Maria Aspan interviewed Warrior and found out why we may need a new social platform focused on books.

Customers have to buy ebooks through Fable’s website to get the most out of the app—but it’s less of a retailer than a subscription-based recommendation engine and private social network. Those who pay an annual membership fee of $69.99 get access to thousands of free titles in the public domain, plus recommendations of works selected by prominent writers and other guest experts. (Currently, humorist David Sedaris is recommending biographies of “iconic alcoholics,” while novelist and poet Chitra Divakaruni is recommending books about how “the immigrant story is an American story.”) These books must be purchased for an additional fee, but Fable customers can then form digital book clubs, to share notes and discuss a particular work with friends through the app. (There is also a free version of Fable, which allows users to read some books and join discussions but not start their own.)

“The two primary goals that I started with were, How do you modernize book clubs and bring them into the digital world?” Warrior says. “And there are millions of books out there, so how do you help people find the best ones?”

FOR YOUR WEEKEND READING PLEASURE

A few great long reads I came across this week:

The Founders of Harry's Got a $1.37 Billion Offer to Sell. But the FTC Wasn't Sold (Inc)
The founders of the razor startup relished their challenger status, picked a fight with a consumer goods giant, and made the biggest deal of their lives. Then they learned some of the toughest lessons of hardball capitalism.

'Our souls are dead': how I survived a Chinese 're-education' camp for Uighurs (The Guardian)
After 10 years living in France, I returned to China to sign some papers and I was locked up. For the next two years, I was systematically dehumanised, humiliated and brainwashed.

Here’s Why Car Thefts Are Soaring (Hint: Check Your Cup Holder) (New York Times)
The technology that once made cars nearly impossible to steal has ushered in a new era of joyriding in some cities, thanks to carelessness with key fobs.

Algorithms and the coronavirus pandemic (Financial Times)
Backlash grows over governments’ use of automated decision making tools.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Airbnb’s CEO on how COVID has changed travel forever By Danielle Abril

Sequoia’s Doug Leone turns on Trump By Lucinda Shen

What is Signal, and is it really safer than WhatsApp? By David Meyer

Everything to know about Samsung’s new Galaxy S21 phones By Aaron Pressman

Wall Street wins again: Affirm IPO leaves $1.23 billion (at least) on the table By Shawn Tully

U.S. shocks investors by adding Xiaomi, the ‘Apple of China,’ to its latest blacklist By Grady McGregor

It’s time to raise the cost of spreading conspiracy theories By Ryan Young

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

BEFORE YOU GO

This week is the 55th anniversary of the arrival of one of the most beloved and campy pop culture creations of my youth, the Batman TV show starring Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar. I only caught it in reruns years later. Comics site The 13th Dimension has a list of the 13 best episodes, which are still available on iTunes and elsewhere. Keep your safety bat belt fastened and have a good weekend.