New York City’s Summer of Hell: Time for a Revolution
Why isn’t the most populous city in America embracing remote work?
On Monday, July 10, 2017, New York City woke up to what Governor Andrew Cuomo had described as “summer of hell.” An eight-week period of train track repairs at Penn Station in Manhattan, expected to cause reduced service across the Tri-State Area.
I couldn’t think of a worse way to start the season or a better excuse to discuss remote work so I turned to the New York Times to have a better gauge of the situation.
“Being herded like cattle and squished in”
An interviewee suggested “some behavioral adjustment to reduce the demand at peak hours,” an exquisite way of uttering: “What you’re gonna do? We are all doomed.” And some lucky folks said they planned on changing schedules to work from home or timing vacations for July and August, but most simply expressed “hope for the best.”
The Times article also included expressions of angst from a couple that will lose time with their children—nothing says I love you better than burning three hours a day on a train while little Billy and tiny Carol watch ten hours of TV—and frustration from a 41-year-old man who had fractured his ankle and will be driving four hours every day to avoid being “trampled or even shoved down the staircase” because he’s going too slow—I can relate: fancy humans, especially those infected with New Yorkitis, care more about their fast, coffee-and-phone walking than about useless turtle people with disabilities.
A brave New Jersey lady shared her plan to set the alarm for 4 a.m. and drive to her friendly train station to catch the 5:43 a.m. to Penn Station before the line starts diverting to Hoboken. “It’s going to be tough,” she declared. To hell with that! Tough? That’s no way to live you life.
If one word can sum up what I found, that’s resignation. Everybody seems to accept that commuting is just a part of life. As long as you are in good physical shape, have no problems with abandoning children, and enjoy the 4 a.m. summer breeze, you’ll be fine. Stop whining, grab that hot latte and gallop.
I’ve been to many offices in New York City—even spent a few days trying to work at some—and seen not only programmers, designers and writers but also managers and sales persons glued to a phone or a computer all day. Do all of them deserve the E train experience of “dripping wet, packed up against the window,” as one mannerly woman described her trip? Do all of them have to leave their houses to do their jobs? I don’t believe so. Too many still do.
We are having tough conversations here
But then I had a glint of hope when I read that some bosses were talking with their employees and considering alternative arrangements such as working from satellite offices outside the city or from home. And this is the crux of the problem: companies—or rather the people running them—need to change, be pragmatic, and adapt to more efficient ways.
We’re still not there, though. Some sadistic masters told their servants that they could leave earlier for a couple of months to catch their packed trains—useless generosity that won’t be enough to help the human resources employee from Long Island who needs to be in her Manhattan office to use some files. She makes $20 an hour and just one train delay a week—bet there will be more—will put her in trouble. That’s exploitation. Surely there’s a way to access those files via a secure connection.
Employees and the self-employed have to push companies to embrace remote work; the system has to be altered from the bottom. And yes, it is true that many workers lack the self-discipline and organizational chops to be productive away from the office—a topic I intend to discuss at another time—but that doesn’t mean you are incapable of learning. You are a flexible, smart person, aren’t you?
A quick aside, if you are bombarded with calls and emails from recruiters—sorry, talent acquisition business partners—ask them if that amazing opportunity they are selling you permits full-time, remote work. You may not hear from them again, not a big loss, and will be stating a powerful message: I’ll work from wherever I want. Eventually, the masters may pay attention.
You should be ashamed, Big City
Summer of hell has already revealed the precarious situation of New York’s transportation system. A slight change in commuters’ behavior, too many transferring to some line or waking up late, or an unexpected event, a furious storm or an accident, guarantees chaos across the city.
Even without major surprises, you can be one of the hapless ones who misses a connection and suddenly has an extra hour to stare at the mass of confounded travelers, or to read—good thing you always carry a friendly book, right? You can’t trust schedules anymore, delays are routine, and there’s no sensible plan B for most routes. Play that game every single day and you’ll start questioning the reason for your existence. It took me just two trips a week in one month visiting a client in the Upper East Side to get to that point. Call me weak and idealistic but I refuse to throw away my time like that.
Penn Station was built between 1963 and 1969, after demolishing the original structure constructed in the beginning of the twentieth century, and it’s clear—after the rash of derailments, malfunctions and delays in recent times—that it wasn’t designed to handle the more than 1,300 trains and 650,000 riders passing through it every day in 2017. Add to that the century-old tunnel under the Hudson River and the equally ancient subway system and the conclusion is evident: The busiest rail hub in North America is collapsing.
One of the first things you learn when you write software to be used by many is that it has to be scalable (capable of being easily expanded on demand) and resilient (tending to adjust easily to misfortune or change). I expect the same of a city. People should be able to take any train or bus at any time, any day, without creating a bottleneck and breaking the system. The city should adapt to its citizens, not the other way around.
New York—never sleeping and so full of itself—is supposed to be the financial and media capital of the world, the leading Internet hub and telecommunications center of the planet. If the way humans work is to be revolutionized, it should happen here. It’s no longer a matter of policies or preferences: New York can’t handle the load and needs to go remote.
Here, burn it all, modern-day life
I’ve worked remotely all of my life, hence I’m familiar with the benefits, but I hadn’t seen the other side, the dreaded way of the commuter; that is, until I started visiting clients in New York. Then I realized how much money, time and energy everybody is wasting.
Pay $60 to park your car for the day, or $260 for a month of train rides; consume four to five hours on the road; and get back home with just enough juice to grunt at your family, thaw your meal, and hit the hay. Repeat for the rest of your life while trying to extract something meaningful out of it. No wonder why so many people are always in such a bad mood.
All. The. Freaking. Time.
I know that many activities still require to put a human body at some location, and I know that certain innovation-related endeavors have better chances of success when a group gathers, and that’s all right, but there are still plenty of jobs that can be performed remotely and nobody should burn their life away if they don’t have to.
I like my jobs like I like my islands: remote
“If we’re still seeing these delays after the repairs,” a woman told the Times, “then I’ll be angry.” Ma'am, being angry won’t do much to improve your work conditions.
It doesn’t matter how far technology reaches, if companies keep thinking that workers needs grumpy bosses breathing on their necks to be productive, and nobody dares to demand working from wherever they feel more comfortable, there will never be a change.
So do that: If you know you are up to it, be bold and whether you already have a job or are interviewing for a new one, ask to go remote full time. You’ll get many nos but keep on it, you just need one yes to start your revolution.
Remote work is the next best thing; it can transform your life, help you achieve more and, if you are the type who cares, even make you happier.
We all can have a positive impact on society, our cities (yes, you too New York), and the environment, and it all starts at home.