Life on the small screen: Part two

Last week, I wrote about the importance of technology during the pandemic, especially in the context of work.

Communication

It is not easy to do all of our communicating electronically. It was fun, at first, to see our colleagues, dressed casually, in their living room or at the kitchen table or perched on the side of their bed, for staff meetings. The novelty has worn off now, and we are starting to see some of the shortcomings of this mode of communication.

As Cal Newport writes in The New Yorker, some interactions are only possible in the office:

“Face-to-face interactions help people communicate and bond . . . A gallery of thumbnail-size co-workers on a laptop screen is a diminished simulacrum of the conference-table gatherings that drive so much of [a workplace’s] life. . . Drawn-out email conversations can be cut short with just a few minutes of spontaneous hallway conversation. When we work remotely, this kind of ad-hoc coordination becomes harder to organize, and decisions start to drag.”

Taking a break

One of the realities of doing so much work online is that it is all too easy to go from one meeting to another to another and to yet another without taking a quick break. That doesn’t usually happen when we work together in person. Even in a packed workday, usually we get up between meetings to move from one office to another.

Now, too often, I find myself not getting up from my desk for hours at a time, merely ending one zoom meeting in time to start the next or, sometimes, texting the next zoom meeting colleague to explain that my previous meeting is running late.

Those little breaks make us more productive. They give us a chance to recalibrate, to move from what we were thinking about in the previous meeting to what we need to think about in the next one. That short stroll down the hall to the next meeting, to grab a cold drink or to visit the washroom, also creates the opportunity to drop into a colleague’s office for a quick hello, to make a plan to eat lunch together, to share a photo of a child or pet.

And, what of breaks themselves? When we are all in the office, gathering informally around the lunch table lets colleagues who may not see each other in the course of their work that day to stay connected, share some laughs, catch up on personal news and relax together.

While some of that camaraderie can be replicated online – at one of my workplaces, we have zoom staff lunches once a month, which are great – it is still not the same as in person. For one thing, I can’t grab a spoonful of my co-worker’s delicious looking soup online.

You’ve got mail!

Anyone who has been working from home over the past few months knows about the challenges of managing email. This is not a new problem, of course, but it has become worse, precisely because we can’t just pop into someone’s office to get a quick answer to a question. Almost everything we communicate with our colleagues is via email.

My co-workers and I struggled with this in the early weeks of the pandemic. How do we acknowledge one another’s efforts when that requires an email rather than a casual “thanks” or “well done” said in the hallway or lunchroom? There were too many emails already, but we did not want people to feel their work was not being acknowledged.

Further, email is too impersonal. As Newport says:

“An e-mail that reads “Job well done!” is not the same as a smile. These benefits of the office – these subtle affirmations of our humanity – were easy to overlook, until we abruptly found ourselves deprived of them.”

Boundaries and transitions

Years ago, a friend, who lived in a small apartment while writing her first book, told me that she had to find a way to separate work from non-work. Her “office” was a desk in the living room, so there was no door she could close behind her when she ended her workday. Her strategy? She changed her footwear when she “went” to work in the morning and then changed back into her non-work footwear at the end of her workday.

While perhaps not a trick that would work for everyone, it makes the point that when we work and play in the same space, it can be challenging to set boundaries. It’s okay – in fact, it’s good – to take a short break from work to toss a load of laundry into the washing machine or to chop up vegetables for the evening meal – but it’s not okay to check and answer emails from the time we wake up until we fall asleep and to carry our phone into the bathroom with us.

Working and living in the same space also eliminates the transition time between these two parts of our lives. Time-consuming as the trip to and from work may be, it gives us the chance to shift our brain from where we were to where we are going.

If we do a good job of it, by the time we come into work, we have put that annoying skirmish with a child or partner out of our mind and, by the time we get home, we have sorted through the end-of-day work detritus and can stop thinking about it until the next day.

What’s the appeal?

From cutting down on travel and thus helping to slow global warming to greater flexibility for workers to saving money on office space, there is a long list of possible benefits to keeping people working from home.

However, a planet of home-based workers, in a capitalist economy, ultimately benefits those who profit from their labour and not those who carry out that labour.

The idea raises a host of questions: Is the home a workplace as defined in workplace health and safety legislation? What if I am injured while working at home? What happens to supports such as worker compensation? Will workers be expected to work even when sick, since they aren’t coming into a shared workspace? Will technology mean that workers are on call 24 hours a day? What does the employer’s duty to provide a safe workplace mean when the workplace is the employee’s home? How will women living in abusive relationships be able to be safe while working at home? Will working from home provide governments with yet another excuse to not properly fund child care?

I have had the privilege of combining work at home with work in various workplaces for two decades. I have cherished the days I work from home: the flexibility, the ability to get tasks done around the house throughout my workday, to take a weekday off and work on the weekend instead, to stay in my pyjamas until noon some days.

But I have also seen the downsides; in particular, the challenge of keeping to a reasonable work week. Being able to work whenever I want all too often leads to checking my phone for emails and messages during the evening and working both through the workday and on the weekend.

But I have never, until the pandemic, worked only from home. The time I spend with colleagues in their workplaces is as important to me as the time I spend working from home. We can sort through knotty problems better in person but, even more, the in-person human connection keeps me inspired and passionate about the work we do together. Just as I don’t want to go to the office every day, I don’t want to work from home every day.

Working from home works for some of us better than for others and, for some, not at all. The fact that it is functioning during the pandemic is a good thing, but that does not mean it should be the future, at least until there has been much more careful thought about the long-term implications.

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