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COVID-19's lasting impact on how we work

Remote working has gone from becoming a luxury

Remote working has gone from becoming a luxury for many to a necessity with the spread of the coronavirus. Credit: Getty Images/katleho Seisa

As millions of Americans are told to self-quarantine or shelter in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus, thousands of companies have instructed employees to work from home, while others have had to furlough or lay off workers.

As a black woman and single parent of two toddlers maneuvering through the COVID-19 pandemic, I am grateful to have been a part of the remote workforce.

I began my career as a freelance/remote writer nearly a decade ago, and quickly recognized the benefits. I was just out of college, buried in debt and struggling to find a job that could help me afford the high cost of living in New York City. I wanted to be a writer — Manhattan being the epicenter of the publishing industry — but I could not afford to live there. Then, most entry-level writing positions paid between $30,000 and $40,000 a year. Instead, I opted to move to more affordable places and apply for remote work or contract one-off projects.

Through the web, I was able to network and connect with editors who published my writing, which in turn underscored my credibility as a writer and helped me land jobs. Simultaneously, I worked high-demand, content-creating jobs, which typically paid less but offered consistent work so I could pay the bills. While my friends worked 40 to 60 hours a week and struggled to get by just to have access to the writing industry, I traveled widely and managed to build a career while working part time.

When I had children and settled into a quiet life near the crystal-clear ocean of Pigeon Point in Trinidad and Tobago, my remote work job continued to offer the comfort and protection I likely could not have otherwise afforded. With an income of roughly $2,200 a month, my family would be classified as below the poverty line if we lived in New York City. Even if I had a full-time, office-based writing job, I would still likely have to depend on welfare to make ends meet in a city where the average one-bedroom apartment goes for some $3,000 and child care expenses run between $1,300 and $2,500 a month. Had I not made my decision years ago, I would likely be confined to a small, Section 8-funded apartment.

In the past, I tried to talk to friends and relatives into working remotely, citing agency and freedom as the main benefit. But many were reluctant to forgo the standard office work arrangement, which has long been normalized as more stable.

The battle against COVID-19 is certain to shift those perspectives. Social distancing is likely to have a lasting impact on how work is conducted after the pandemic has ended.

Remote work was fast becoming a norm, with a staggering 159% increase in remote workers between 2005 and 2017. As many shift to working from home amid this crisis, those numbers are sure to skyrocket. And as an added bonus, remote work has been positively correlated to workplace diversity and inclusivity. As more companies opt into allowing employees to work remotely, people of color (like myself) and even people with disabilities will have a better shot at participating in the workforce.

There are many ways this fight against coronavirus can usher in an era that confers more freedom to workers, especially those most vulnerable to economic strains. While the sun shines and I watch my kids splash and play in our pool, I think about how our lives would be different had I not made the leap to start a career as a remote worker. And I also hope more people get the opportunity to make the same choice. 

Tiffanie Drayton is a freelance writer based Trinidad and Tobago.

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