In the middle of mindlessly scrolling through my facebook news feed, I found this interesting article on the Wall Street Journal about the downsides of working from home. It feels almost like it was only a week ago that we had come home from our offices after the announcement of lockdown measures, shaken by fears of the virus looming unseen and untested around us, but at the same time excited at the idea of working from home.
No more wasting time on commutes! No more dealing with traffic and shady seat mates on the bus! No more cheap takeout and shoddy cafeteria food for lunches! Though the economy was facing its largest downturn in ages, tens of thousands losing their jobs as businesses shuttered at the lack of, well, business, and thousands more were suiting up to face the contagion head-on inside emergency rooms, we happily hung up our pants. And it wasn’t just a local thing, either. While the virus razed through nations large and small, companies declared mandatory WFH for their employees, with some, like Twitter, even happily announcing it to a new normal to be expected even well past the pandemic.
But as the article says, it turns out working from home wasn’t all we had made it out to be. Ironically, this is something that only caught up to me quite recently, as well, despite the fact that our department has had work-from-home arrangements in place since I started working there. Every week, we were given one work day that, barring meetings and other special corporate events that required our attendance, we could elect to spend at home. My designated WFH day was on Wednesdays, and I nearly abused that privilege. When corporate announced a fully-WFH arrangement for the duration of the quarantine, I was nothing short of excited.
But at home, work quickly became a death race for deliverables and IM responses. Miss a message on Viber, Teams, Slack, or whichever messaging platform your team uses and you’re immediately assumed AFK, probably sneaking out an extra lunch or, worse, asleep.
On the contrary being at home actually pulls you away from distractions, particularly the healthy ones that make the workplace sustainable. Sure your cat is constantly jumping onto your work desk and trying to nap on the warm, warm bed that is your laptop keyboard. If you’re a parent, then you probably have kids pulling on your shirt every hour or two asking for a snack. And if you’re me, you’ve got a brand-spanking new machine sitting just beside your work laptop, Steam installed, and your friends just a discord chat away from a coop game of Borderlands.
For some reason, a lot of managers seem to have this conception that their workers are a bunch of undisciplined children who’d jump into bed or in front of the X-Box (is this reference already dated? A Switch, maybe?) the moment they take their watchful eyes off them. But we’re educated adults, and we know the value of hard work. And faced with the same deadlines, in the dead quiet of the corner of the bedroom we’ve transformed into our temporary office, we’re not really wont to do anything else. No more the bantering with your desk-mates, the tiny chat with the people across the floor whenever you make the short trip to the pantry for a refill of your coffee. Sure, with no one looking over our shoulders anymore, a quick detour on the browser for a Youtube video or so is certainly doable – and expected every hour or so – but alone in our home offices there’s really nothing else to do but to carry on with the work.
When I think about it now, the best parts about my old work-from-home days wasn’t exactly the “home” part. If the quiet of my bedroom got too restless, I had the option to fly off to my girlfriend’s dorm, or to a coffee shop with reliable internet, for a quick change in scenery. Family gatherings were easy to get to while on WFH because I was already in the neighborhood. And if I had classes to get to, I could use my lunch break to commute to university, to my favorite cafe inside campus (which I recently found out is closing), and be at an easy, walking distance from my classes.
Forced to stay at home 24/7 renders all that flexibility moot. We’re trapped, grinding out deliverables for our task lists one after the other in a home that has now been invaded by the workplace. Back then, working onsite, it was easy to set a distinction for when work ends and private life begins. The soonest I’m out the door, my phone’s Teams and Viber notifications go on mute, and my work laptop stays locked inside my office drawer. Now, however, work is constantly on. Zoom meetings, unhampered by people’s commute schedules, easily extend into the night. Urgent requirements flow through Viber DMs. Our capitalist overlords, despite crying death and destruction amid the pandemic, have gotten exactly what they’ve always wanted: workers chained to their offices, with nowhere else to go for distraction or leisure. Piling work gets justified by excuses like, “well, at least we still have jobs, right?”
Really, my WFH setup was an attempt at recreating something I’d lost when I left the office back in March armed with my “laptop and a sense of doom.” A sense of separation, of a threshold, if only imagined, between work and my private life. The ability to undock my work laptop and tuck it away is an added bonus, but the dedication of a specific corner of my bedroom for the work allows me to program myself into a pattern. On the desk, work happens. Elsewhere, on the bed, in the living room, is for other things. The moment I undock my laptop and get up from that desk, work is over. And I can rest. We need that, among other things.