you're still not working from home

This is the Sunday edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.

A very weird thing about writing books = you often start thinking about your next one as you’re in the process of promoting the current one. I finished the fact checking and copy editing process on Can’t Even back in February, added a brief prologue in early March, then waited for the book to come out in late September.

In the meantime: a global pandemic, an economic cataclysm, a caretaking disaster, and a massive shift in office labor into the home. For my partner, Charlie Warzel, and I, working from home wasn’t new: we’d been doing it since we moved to Montana in 2017. At the time, we were both working for BuzzFeed News; now he works for the New York Times and I work for, well, here. Over the first few months of the pandemic, we watched as people cycled through the expected reactions to remote work: it blows, I like some small parts of it, but mostly it blows.

But here’s the thing we both kept coming back to: you are not working from home. ‘Bullshit,’ you might be saying, as you read this sentence on a computer screen in a makeshift office in your bedroom you haphazardly constructed so that it might look semi-professional over Zoom calls with coworkers. After all, if you’re one of the lucky 37 percent of American workers who can do your job remotely, you’ve likely spent much of the last year chained to a screen in your home clocking in each morning. You are, quite literally, doing your job from home.

But you’re not working from home. You are laboring in confinement and under duress. You’re stealing a few minutes in the bathroom away from your kids to “check in” with your boss. You’re frantically tapping out an email while trying to make lunch and run a distance learning home school. You’re stuck alone in a cramped apartment for weeks, unable to see friends or family — work becomes life and life becomes work. You’re exhausted and managing a level of stress you didn’t know was possible. You’re not thriving, you’re surviving.

Here’s the nightmare scenario: this could be the future. Until recently, massive implementation of work from home seemed more like a thought experiment in the pages of the Harvard Business Review than an idea that might work in practice. But the pandemic has forced millions of us into remote work and companies are starting to get curious. For a CFO, getting that expensive downtown real-estate off the balance sheet is starting to look pretty enticing, especially when you factor in cost of living deceases if and when employees move out of the city. And then there’s the efficiency: no more commutes means more time to answer emails! Some of the biggest companies in the world have decided to make the switch and offer remote work as an option for employees in perpetuity, which, as with almost any business decision, means they think it could be lucrative. And their cost savings will be shouldered by you, the worker. 

This is the dark truth of the WFH Forever revolution. It promises to liberate workers from the chains of the office. But in practice, it capitalizes on the total collapse of work-life balance. We know this from experience; after more than six months of working from home, you also know this from experience.

How do we resist this? Or, more precisely, how do use this moment of transition to think about all the things that sucked about office work, all the things that suck about working from home, and choose…..a third way that does not suck? That’s what Charlie and I decided to write a book about, and what we’ll be working on for the months to come.

So here’s some of our initial thinking. We know that the third way doesn’t just mean implementing Zoom Happy Hours, or making a company wide announcement that it’s okay if your kids pops into your conference call to ask for a snack. That’s the sort of incrementalism that fixes nothing and exhausts everyone. 

Reconceptualization means having honest conversations about how much people are working — and how they think they could work better. Not longer. Not by taking on more projects, or being better delegators, or having more meetings. Instead, it means acknowledging that better work is, in fact, oftentimes less work, over fewer hours, which makes people happier, more creative, more invested in the work they do and the people they do it for.

It entails thinking through how online communication tools function as surveillance, and incentivize play-acting your job instead of actually doing it. It will require organization based on employees’ and managers’ preferred and most effective work times, and consideration of child and elder care responsibilities, volunteering schedules, and time zones. And crucially: it doesn’t mean not ever going into an office. It means choosing the time you spend in the office, and instead of resenting it, using it in collaborative, generative ways.

Actually working from home — not working from home during a pandemic, not working from home under duress — can remove you from the wheel of constant productivity. It can make you happier and healthier, but it can also make your community happier and healthier. It can make the labor in your home more equitable. It can make you a better friend, and parent, and partner. It can, somewhat ironically, actually increase worker solidarity. It can allow you to actually live the sort of life you pretend to live in your Instagram posts: liberating you to explore the non-work corners of your life, from actual hobbies to civic involvement. But it can only do those things if you commit yourself to refiguring the placement of work in your life. Instead of changing our lives to make ourselves better workers, we have to change our work to make our lives better. 

Of course, so-called “knowledge” work — the primary type of work that’s done remotely — is a middle and upper class work. And the problems therein are, at times, gilded ones: few people struggling with working from home are also struggling to get food on the table. But if the last year has shown us anything, it’s that the compass that guides our ability to identify and to reward truly essential work has been uncalibrated. Our obsession with productivity has blinded and distracted us from systemic inequalities, swallowing the sort of time and energy necessary to advocate for change. One of the refrains of the current moment is I don’t know how to make you care about other people. And one of the most straightforward solutions could be: giving people the time and mental freedom to actually care about things that aren’t themselves and their immediate families. 

For years, many of us have behaved as if our jobs trump everything else in our lives. We’re loathe to say it aloud, but our actions tell the true story: we value our work performance over our families, over personal growth and health, and over our communities. Part of that commitment is rooted in fear of instability. But part of it, too, stems from the ways in which we’ve convinced ourselves of our work is important in order to justify how much of ourselves, how many years and hours, we’ve devoted to it. 

That sort of emotional devotion makes it harder to think of work as what it is: not a savior, not “a family,” but a job. It also makes it harder to organize or demand better conditions for other employees, in your workplace and in others. It’s paradoxical, but the ability to decenter work in your life — and separate it, however slightly, from your identity — actually makes you a better advocate for other workers.

We are currently on the cusp of a societal inflection point. Parts of our lives that were once quietly annoying have become intolerable; social institutions that felt broken are now breaking us. But when an institution is broken, it can’t be reformed with incremental fixes that touch the contours of the problem but don’t probe the heart. They have to be reimagined. Not in some utopian fashion, but with a vigilant eye toward how power is accumulated and distributed.

To be clear: working from home will not, in itself, save society. It won’t heal the environment. It won’t end sexism or racism. It won’t remedy the wage gap. Done wrong, it will only exacerbate the class divide, further separating  the real essential workers from those who can labor from the safety of their homes. But at least in this moment, it can do something remarkable: it can liberate us, in meaningful and lasting ways, from work. We don’t work from home because work is what matters most. We work from home to free ourselves to focus on what actually does. 

In the months to come, we’ll be making our way through a truly massive pile of reading, doing dozens of interviews, and shaping and re-shaping our thinking on what work from home and all its flexible iterations could look like. The subtitle of the book is currently The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home, which hopefully tells you a bit about how seriously we take the threat that work from home could turn into a true shitfire. But this isn’t a life hack book. It’s not the 4-Hour Work Week. It’s trying to trace out a much bigger shift in the way we conceive of work in our lives.

If you think that’s utopian and thus not worth thinking about, you’re part of the problem. We know that it’s hard to think about doing anything hard right now. But as I’ve written before, we’re in “a plastic hour” — a moment with the potential for massive change. Why not imagine our lives not as they are, not as they were, but how we’d actually like them to be?

As with Can’t Even, I’ll be sharing some of the best/most interesting research and reading as I wade through it, and Charlie will probably show up for a few guest posts to talk about just how much he hated working from home for the first three years and what shifted pre-pandemic…and also what he learned from the 1992 Executive’s Guide to Email. Many of you have already sent along truly excellent reading suggestions (you can see our first pile of books here); if you have additional ones, we’d love to hear them. Next month, we’ll start interviewing, and will be looking to people in all sorts of work scenarios willing to talk about their old offices, their current situations, and what has and really has not functioned.

For now, you can subscribe to this newsletter, if you aren’t already, to tag along on the process — and just remember: You are not, currently, working from home. You are working from home during a pandemic. It’s hard to imagine our lives on the other side. But it’s time to start. ●

Things Charlie and I Read and Loved This Week:

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