Don't look now, but the blue-collar remote work revolution is coming

It's not just laptop laborers who can work from home. Technology will enable many jobs to go remote. Here's what we should all be thinking about.

I saw the remote revolution at work in a dusty village in Northwest Africa.

I'm a digital nomad who lives internationally. Right now, I'm in Morocco, which is an amazing country to visit — and to work from.

Last week, on a drive from Essouira to Marrakesh, my wife and I stopped with some friends to visit an argan cooperative. Argan oil is produced in significant quantities only in this region of Morocco, where argan trees are endemic. The oil is used for both cosmetics and food. (Moroccans also use it, combined with almond butter and honey, to create a delicious breakfast dip for bread called amlou.)

To extract the oil, each nut has to be carefully cracked — a process that’s done by hand using stones. Machines that can crack nuts without destroying the kernel are prohibitively expensive, so the industry relies on human labor. It's hard to do it right.

This work is done by women, mostly uneducated rural Berber women with limited work prospects from very small villages. Normally, they sit together on rugs on the floor in rooms at the cooperative with between three and 20 women per room, cracking argan nuts and separating the kernels for the next stage in processing.

We visited the cooperative, expecting to find rooms full of women workers. Instead, we found — wait for it! — the argan workers had been working from home since the pandemic began.

The cooperative delivers nuts to their homes, where the women crack the nuts and dry the kernels, then picks up the kernels already processed.

The argan industry is learning that WFH remote work is more efficient, enabling women to make their own schedules and tend to their families, boosting employee retention and reducing the need for valuable nut-cracking workspaces.

Also: workers without daycare alternatives would bring their kids to work, and the kids would just sit there next to them as they toiled away. Processing argan nuts at home is far healthier for these kids.

Which raises the question: What other jobs might be better done remotely? And what benefits for both employer and employee might be realized?

The ultra high-tech blue collar remote-work revolution

A convenience store chain in Japan, called FamilyMart, is experimenting with remotely controlled robots to stock shelves. The employees can work from anywhere using what are  essentially VR googles and controllers, and among their number can be disabled employees with limited mobility — people who lack the physical ability to stock shelves unassisted by robotics.

Heavy equipment maker, Cat, is developing increasingly-capable remote-control earth movers and other such equipment — as are several other European companies. For now, it's marketed as a safety technology, so humans don't have to work in dangerous work environments. But in the future, it could be that high-skilled machine operators could be hired from anywhere. Construction. Road work. You name it — it could all be done from a city apartment.

Planes, trains, and automobiles could be piloted and controlled remotely. Some factory work can be done at home, as long as the equipment isn't too large or complex.

In fact, a great many jobs now considered impossible as remote positions could become remote with the right technology, along with some creative thinking.

As with Morocco's argan workers, the output and productivity of many of these remote-able, non-information worker jobs is readily measurable. And it often wouldn't require those employees to work quickly, during specific hours or all at once. They would just have to meet quotas and quality standards, however they want to meet them. It introduces enormous flexibility, and therefore job retention.

Of course, many jobs cannot or should not be pivoted to remote. Kindergarten teachers, firefighters, nurses — I suspect it would be better to let doctors go remote than nurses — you name it. We will always need some blue-collar workers to do their jobs in person because of the nature of those jobs.

But here's the thing: argan-nut processors were able to go remote, but not because of technology. The possibility that other non-information jobs could go remote will depend on very advanced technology — namely, remote control, remote presence, and related technology that call for massive processing power, powerful and secure internet connectivity, and robotics, to name a few.

The bottom line is that while we're all fixated on how to proceed with white-collar, information-worker jobs, the blue-collar, non-information worker jobs are poised to go through a remote work revolution of their own, enabled by technology that's far more advanced than what underpins white-collar workers.

As a bonus, the coming blue-collar remote work trend could greatly improve opportunities for physically disabled workers, home-bound workers, parents, rural communities and others — while expanding the labor pool for the companies that hire them.

It's time for forward-thinking companies to start thinking about the possibilities, perils, and business opportunities in the blue-collar remote worker idea. Because that revolution is surely coming.

As with companies in the argan oil industry during the pandemic, it could just save your business.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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