Working from home was the dream but is it turning into a nightmare? | John Naughton | Opinion
Remember when it was so exciting to be able to WFH – work from home? When your boss, instead of being grumpy and taking a grudging “well-if-you-must” attitude was suddenly insisting that you had to work remotely? And how refreshing that seemed at the beginning? No more dispiriting 90-minute commutes, for example. Suddenly, extra hours were added to your day. A better work-life balance beckoned, because we had developed a technological infrastructure that had made distance irrelevant. What was not to like?
Of course there were glitches. Childcare, for example, became a nightmare when schools and nurseries closed. Not everyone had good, reliable broadband. And it turned out that not every household had multiple laptops either. Likewise, many people lived in small apartments where the choice of workspace boiled down to either the kitchen table or the cubbyhole that masqueraded as a spare bedroom. And there were still large numbers of “critical” workers whose work couldn’t be done from home.
But still, wasn’t it wonderful that so many of us could?
Well, that was then and this is now. I’m picking up a distinct impression that the novelty of WFH has begun to wear thin as we realise that the pandemic might turn out to be a very long haul indeed. And the more we are obliged to interact with the technology at home, the more acute our perceptions of its implications and downsides are becoming.
Take, for example, that perennial question of work-life balance. It has definitely shifted during the lockdown – but in favour of the office. We may be physically at home but many of us are working harder than we did when we were, physically, on corporate premises. I’ve lost count of the number of colleagues and friends who confess to being “Zoomed out” at the end of a day. It turns out that online meetings are more cognitively demanding because, in the absence of physical cues, one simply has to concentrate more when online. And because people don’t need to physically move between one meeting and the next, Zoom (or Google Meet, WebEx or Jitsi) meetings can be scheduled back to back – and many are. What’s basically happened is that the office has invaded the home. Or, to put it another way, we’re all sleeping in the office now.
“Morning meetings bleed into afternoon meetings bleed into late afternoon meetings,” writes MG Siegler, a venture capitalist who currently works from home. “But unlike in, say, an office – an actual office – where I have to move conference rooms and maybe do a lunch meeting, not to mention commute to and from, I’m just sitting here at my desk. One Zoom meeting ends, the next begins. Why not have it start right away? It’s so amazingly efficient that I want to punch it in the face.” And this isn’t about Zoom, he goes on: “It’s about the world in which we currently live, which has made work from home a necessity and the tools that enable this world are optimised to make this world as efficient as possible.”
Empirical evidence for this is beginning to appear. A recent large-scale study by the National Bureau for Economic Research in the US, using data from more than 3 million workers, found that the number of meetings per person had gone up 12.9% and the number of attendees per meeting increased by 13.5% during the pandemic. The researchers also found “significant and durable” increases in length of the average workday – up 8.2%, or 48.5 minutes – along with short-term increases in email activity.
When the lockdown started, there was a naive belief that large-scale adoption of WFH signalled a dramatic reversal in managerial mindsets that had hitherto suspected people working from home would be slackers. Now we discover that the suspicion never went away, but instead has been reinforced by wide deployment of surveillance tools for making sure that home workers stay chained to their laptops.
For example, last week Wired reported: “Programs such as Time Doctor, ActivTrak, Teramind and the dystopian-sounding StaffCop have all seen huge increases in demand. Remote teams are now watched through their webcams via always-on video services like Sneek. In the office-free world, bosses can now clandestinely scan screenshots, log-in times and keystrokes at will to ensure their workforce is keeping its focus and productivity.”
According to the Information Commissioner’s Office, employers must tell employees if they’re being monitored and why and maybe home workers are being informed about the extent of the snooping. If they’re not, then the law is being routinely broken. But the bigger – and more sinister – picture is that surveillance systems that might have been acceptable to employees when they worked in a corporate office have now silently intruded into their homes. Which is another way that the work-life balance has been tilted in unanticipated ways. All of which goes to demonstrate the wisdom of that old adage: be careful what you wish for you might just get it!
What I’ve been reading
World history, interrupted
There’s a fascinating interview with historian Adam Tooze on the New York magazine site about how Covid-19 might remake the modern world.
End of a US era
Anthropologist Wade Davis has written a bracing, long essay in Rolling Stone on how the pandemic has challenged American exceptionalism.
Don’t fear the needle
Will the siren song of anti-vaxxers put immunity at risk when a Covid-19 vaccine arrives? Political scientist Yascha Mounk gives a welcome – and hopefully realistic – analysis on the Atlantic site.