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The future of working from home

Due to a series of extended lockdowns and ‘stay at home’ measures, along with the closure of schools and quarantine regulations for those in close contact with infected persons, more people have been working from home during the pandemic than ever before.

The issue is currently in the crosshairs of the UK Government, which is currently ‘considering legislation to make working from home the “default” option by giving employees the right to request it’. But although our present predicament is clearly connected to, and partly caused by, the biological facts of a virus and resulting social distancing measures, there are a number of broader sociological factors and trends shaping our understanding and experiences of working from home that demand closer scrutiny.

To what extent is our current experience of working from home a continuation and expansion of already existing practices, or conversely, a qualitatively different arrangement within the history of work? What are the effects of transforming the home into a place of work? And what forms of intervention to resist or influence this transition are possible and necessary?

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In January 2021, author and journalist David Streitfield wrote a piece for the New York Times on ‘The Long, Unhappy History of Working from Home’. Although Streitfield recognises that working from home has a history long predating the pandemic, ironically the article does not provide us with the means to locate this practice within the history of work.

In addition to being long, the history of conducting work at home is equally diverse, including the self-employed, artists, piece workers in the textiles industry, sex workers and anyone engaged in housework (whether it be cleaning your own home, someone else’s home that is external to your own home, or an employer’s home that is simultaneously your own place of residence). See, for example, the work of Arlie Russell Hochschild, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Raffaella Sarti, and Selma James. Such diverse histories are important to recognising that for many, work and home have never been mutually exclusive.

That being said, work and home have often been physically separated, and this separation has been presented as the norm and standard in the West throughout the twentieth century and for the most part into the twenty-first. This tendency towards physically distinct spheres can be located in the emergence of industrial forms of work in the long 19th century. Industrialisation produced home and work as distinct, oppositional spheres occupied for different reasons during different parts of the day.

The emergence of the post-industrial economy, however, has since provided the foundation for the collapsing of these spheres. When work does not rely on producing goods in particular locations, but on communicating with others and exchanging information, ‘remote’ or ‘teleworking’ becomes possible. Far from being a recent phenomenon, work that would have previously occurred at a location dedicated to that work (e.g. offices) has been undertaken from home in some capacity since the 1950s. The popularisation of the internet in the 1990s increased this tendency. Homes became ‘mediated’ which allows for the home to become a site from which work with others can be instantly undertaken.

This trend of increased working from home has been significantly spurred by the pandemic. According to the UK Office for National Statistics, in 2019 around 8.7 million people said that they have worked from home (less than 30% of the workforce). In April 2020, however, 46.6% of people in employment did some work at home. Importantly, 86% of those who worked from home in April 2020 did so because of the pandemic. As philosopher and psychoanalyst Sergio Benvenuto has noted, the pandemic has strengthened ‘a tendency that would have in any case prevailed […] “working remotely” or “wfh”, working from home and avoiding the office’. In other words, the pandemic has changed the place and the way in which many of us work and has provided a driving force for increasing the tendency to work from the mediated home.

It would be misleading, however, to suggest that the pandemic has simply extended or accelerated an already existing practice of working from home, for there are important differences. To start with, prior to the pandemic the experience of working from home was by no means the same for everyone. For some, working from home has been experienced and understood as a privilege, affording elites the luxury of temporal flexibility. But for others, such as clerical workers, the pressures of the office environment migrated into their home, in addition to an increased workload. In both cases, though, such work could often be understood as ‘hybrid working’, in which working from home is undertaken in conjunction with working from work.

It seems likely that such ‘hybrid working’ will become more prevalent post-pandemic, perhaps even the ‘norm’. However, if large swathes of the population experience a substantial shift to increased amount of working from home, then this generalised culture shift, could culminate in a qualitatively different state of affairs, in which the hybrid or dual-location model is superseded by a model in which home and work become indistinguishable. In other words, the very distinction between home and work may become history.

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Continual working from home, for extended periods of time, without the ability to choose such a situation, comes with significant pressures. These pressures can be linked to the way that social strands within our lives, activity and development that connects a running narrative, are braided tightly together, where many have seen their roles of parent, citizen, leisurite, spouse, homemaker, cook as well as ‘worker’ tightly connected and simultaneously enacted within the same space. This creates new rhythms of experience, moving away from a traditional sense of time linked to celestial movements and the seasons, or industrial rhythms linked to the clocking-in and out of ‘work’, toward asymmetrical experiences of time, promoting a scenario in which people become alienated from one another, and in which experiences of social life becoming jarring.

Such experiences of work, which now can be accessed at any time within the home, extend and intensify the working day, where a form of improvisation is likely to be required to navigate this tightly braided social terrain. This improvisation is necessarily fast paced, and our sense of ‘who we are’ thereby becomes entwined with ‘who we are becoming’. We are met with the risk of the unknown within the familiar territory of the home, which for many, though not all, was previously a place for rest and safety. The home thus becomes a bastion of protection from the risk of infection, yet also a stress point of compacted activity, that can include the disciplinary mechanisms of ‘paid work’ – e.g. appraisals, disciplinaries, target setting, service-user demand, forced growth and linear progress – with no ‘space’ to escape, no chance acts of solidarity that the uncensored communal corridor used to bring.

The internet was once viewed as an intrinsically good and liberatory force, until it became apparent that it could be used as a mechanism for manipulating the behaviour of populations. Similarly, the fate of working from home could go in a number of different directions. Benvenuto and others may well be right that an increase in the proportion of people working from home was inevitable, and that the pandemic has merely brought this development forward, but that hardly means the issue is foreclosed. The details of how this transition unfolds and the norms that emerge most certainly matter, for these details will have far-reaching impacts of the quality of peoples’ lives. In this respect, an increase in the level of working from home may have been inevitable, but what that specifically entails and how it is managed is by no means decided.

These are issues that are being contested in parliament and workplaces (and homes) right around the country, and across the world, as we speak. The time to come to terms with the ‘long unhappy history of working from home’, and how it could be improved to assist human flourishing, is now.

Edward Wright, Richard Gee, Mark Axler, Craig Lundy, Sharon Hutchings and Tom Vickers are members of the Work Futures Research Group at Nottingham Trent University.

Image credit: Nelly Antoniadou on Unsplash