Distance work is “luxury”, but many can be left out

Virtual reality meetings, $ 7,000 all-in-one kits, and hot digital desktop: Big Tech launches premium tools as the era of working from home seems to last far beyond the pandemic.

But experts warn that while front-line functions may benefit privileged Americans, millions of others can barely access the remote work tools already available.

Facebook has introduced online “workrooms” for users of its Oculus virtual reality equipment and Google has displayed interactive conference screens, stating that the “hybrid” mix of face-to-face and remote work is here to stay.

Still, outside of Silicon Valley and other urban centers, basics like a fast Internet connection and mastery of remote technology are beyond the reach of tens of millions in the United States.

“For many people, being able to work from home is still a luxury,” said Michelle Burris, a senior policy associate at the progressive think tank The Century Foundation.

One reason is access to high-speed connections, with advocate group BroadbandNow saying in a May report that 42 million Americans (approximately 13% of the population) cannot access broadband internet. .

Another problem is equipment, as many workers have to buy their own.

Take the example of Patricia McGee in Texas, a four-year-old 39-year-old mother who switched jobs at an Amazon store to a remote customer service from another company when pandemic closures occurred about 18 months ago.

He had to drop $ 2,000 to get a computer, not to mention the price of the Internet and the process of installing software and upgrades.

“Not everyone can afford a computer. So it’s taking jobs from people who can’t (buy one) or who don’t really have the skills to use it,” he told AFP.

His machine broke down a few days ago, and since he had run out of free time, McGee can’t work or make money until the computer is back online.

– Risk of being left out –

The digital divisions exposed by the pandemic are well documented with striking examples, such as families using wireless internet in fast food restaurants so their children can attend school online.

As schools and jobs, in many areas, have gradually returned to face-to-face activity, some inequalities have been reduced.

But a percentage of workers have come to appreciate the flexibility and usefulness of a “hybrid” mix where they can sometimes work from home.

“It’s one of those seemingly harmless things that seems convenient, but it can be, unless we really address it and recognize it, another tool to increase inequality,” said Monica Sanders, a professor at Georgetown University.

Sanders noted that this is different from other technological developments, such as the latest smartphone or even having a videotape player when machines revolutionized home entertainment.

“They didn’t affect your power to earn, or where you live or how you work,” he said.

The change in the way people work has not gone unnoticed by employers, as digital skills for zoom presentation or remote management tools make their way into job ads.

Author and remote works expert Rhiannon Payne said virtual reality will normally become a part of the way people do their jobs like cell phones and laptops.

He agreed that the risks of excluding people cannot be ignored, but also that high-tech tools can improve lives.

“Companies are trying to find ways to make remote work really easier and help us increase connections with our colleagues,” he told AFP.

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