One of the measures used in a bid to combat the COVID-19 pandemic has been work from home orders and advice. Where possible, people have been asked to turn part of their home into their office and work from there.
It’s worth noting that this has primarily applied to office workers. If you work in a factory or on construction sites then working from home is impossible for fairly obvious reasons. If you are a teacher, then the preference was, as soon as possible, to re-open the classrooms, face to face time is seen as essential. However, for many, the question has now been raised as to whether Working From Home should become a permanent thing.
It’s probably also worth distinguishing Working From Home from Working At Home. For most of the past 11 years, I’ve worked from home. This mean that my office/study was at home, I was based there but I was frequently out and about visiting people, attending meetings elsewhere, speaking at the church building and doing outreach door to door and in the high street. This meant I had lots of direct face to face contact with others. However, for the past year my work has primarily been at home because it has mainly been about writing articles and preparing talks for YouTube, Facebook and podcast/audio. Meetings have often been via Zoom. That’s quite a different experience. Similarly, whilst for many, home working will mean having a base from which to visit clients and customers, giving convenience if they don’t go into the office, there has long been a home based workforce sent administrative or manufacturing work packages to complete at home.
So, what are the implications of “Work From Home” and are they positive or negative? Well, first of all, there are implications for employers. On the one hand, many are seeing this as an opportunity to make savings by reducing office space. However, the jury is out in terms of the impact on teamworking, efficiency and accountability.
For employees there are immediate concerns. There is a huge risk of isolation and loneliness. Additionally, it seems to me that the option to have a home office creates something of a class divide. It sounds great if you are able to convert a spare room into the office but what about those competing for space at the kitchen table with other family members and having the constant distractions and interruptions from young children playing.
From that perspective, homeworking is a strong negative. It risks having significant social and psychological consequences. However, it is also worth remembering, in case we’ve forgotten it that most office and factory sites are not the happy Edenic paradises that some people are starting to paint now. The life of the worker in a large, soulless (and sometimes windowless) open plan office with deadlines to make and paperwork to complete can be pretty close to the experience of battery hens at times. Add in the silent commute packed onto tube trains like sardines and you can see why many would welcome the opportunity to work more from home. Not only that but workplaces can become the domain of cliques and bullies. For some, the office was a continuation of their experience at school of being isolated, excluded and tormented either by other colleagues or a tyrannical boss. Why do we think that so many long for their retirement date when they can stay home?
What strikes me most of all is how our views of homeworking are shaped by the specific 20th/21st Century modern culture we live in. We see the home as private, closed off space and we travel away from it for work and education. Yet, this is one of those examples where Western modern experience is unique in history. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, working from home was the norm. And it is probably that change which has turned our homes into insular closed off space. We are isolated at home in the daytime because we don’t expect many other people to be about, especially since the further shift to it being necessary for both husbands and wives to work.
So, whilst I’m deeply concerned about the current impact of homeworking on people, I’m not sure yet whether that will be a permanent problem. It could be that we will actually begin to see a shift in behaviours. If I was used to having a conversation with a colleague over the desk or if two or three of us would gather in the break one for natter at lunchtime, then maybe that will transfer back to local communities. The next desk is next door, so perhaps we’ll start to see more people chatting over the garden fence, knocking on each other’s doors or heading to the pub for lunch with a few others. I’ve certainly noticed where I live that people have been increasingly likely to greet each other and even stop for a natter when out for exercise during the day.
Homeworking doesn’t have to be an altogether negative thing though there is no guarantee that it won’t be and as I observed earlier it will affect different segments of society differently. However, one way or the other it will have implications, we won’t be left unchanged by the move. This means that there will be implications for churches and the work of the Gospel too.