“Miserable as it can often be, remote work is surprisingly productive — leading many employers to wonder if they’ll ever go back to the office.”
llustration by Max Guther
by Clive Thompson
“Josh Harcus sells robots for a living. Robotic vacuum cleaners, to be specific — a model called the Whiz, which his employer, SoftBank Robotics America, released here last fall. The company, part of a group owned by the Japanese conglomerate, has deployed more than 6,000 of the robots around the world, including at Facebook headquarters. They look like something out of “Wall-E”: a rolling gray cylinder about thigh-high that trundles back and forth over carpets, sucking up dirt. Many of Harcus’s customers are major airports and hotel chains or the huge cleaning companies hired by them. SoftBank Robotics rents the units to clients, at an annual cost of $6,000 per machine. It’s an expensive lease, so all last fall and through the winter Harcus was traveling around, showing off the Whiz, pressing the flesh to convince customers of its value.
“‘Probably a good 80 percent of my time was on the road,’ he says. He would pack up a robot, fly it into town, turn up at the hotel and then have it go to work in front of the staff. ‘It feels kind of like vacuum sales back in the day, like Hoover sales: You show up, throw dirt on the ground, scoop up the dirt — “How many do ya want?”‘ He had mastered a sales pitch filled with patter about industrial filth. (‘Not to bore you with stats, but a foot of carpet can hold up to a pound of dirt,’ he told me. ‘Honestly? Those are the nastiest hallways in the world.’)
“When Covid-19 hit, Harcus’s company, like most firms across the country, sent its office staff home. Overnight, it essentially became a remote workplace.”
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