Y’all noticed this pandemic? Immediate symptoms include labored breathing, loss of sense of taste, and a lot more people working from home. Long-term symptoms include lasting shortness of breath and everyone complaining about working from home.
If the people you work with have been working remotely, you’ve learned a lot about them. You’ve learned who hates their kids, who can’t figure out how to work the “mute” button, and what everyone’s personal dungeons look like. You’ve also learned that some people really can’t fucking deal with this.
To be fair, it’s a big change for everyone. Some folks, particularly those who prefer their home lives to their work lives, love working from home. Others have been looking forward to returning to the office since day one.
Day one is about when I started my hybrid model of working part time on-location and part time from home. I’ve enjoyed it. I think it’s great. Many of those close to me feel the same, but we’re united on another front as well: those of us who want to return to the office should be able to when it’s safe.
But those people seem less unified on the topic of our own wellbeing. Where I don’t care whether or not the business lovers among us work from home or return to their fluorescent meccas, they seem to give a real big shit about where I work.
To be clear, I’m not referencing my job here — despite working in-person in some capacity for the entirety of the popular work from home period, I’ve been pretty lucky to be in a position of clear communication for a few months now. The people who care most are those who don’t seem to know me at all.
The headlines I see most often come from major financial institutions, from CEOs and self-important business majors. These are folks who have, historically, basked in the status quo. The way of the world benefited them, and they loved it. Now that the pandemic has shifted things, not to their detriment, but so that they are no longer the sole beneficiaries of their system, they’re uncomfortable. The American economic system let business fetishists roleplay softcore slavery, and they’ve been absolutely lost without their diminishing supplies of absolute power.
Just as I was getting ready to publish this, I read an article from CNN Business that gave me a Category 4 hernia. The article discusses a set of comments from the CEO of Morgan Stanley demanding that employees return to the office come autumn. Beyond the article’s author thirsting over this business daddy’s capitalist couture, the string of quotes is overtly hostile toward employees. There’s no discussion, no explanation. You want to stay home? Too bad, big fat baby. I make the rules here. Rules make me horny.
We’re deep enough in grime that I don’t think I have to explain that I’m a big advocate for working from home. I think it’s improved my life a lot. Benefits like an eliminated commute and not having to pack five identical sandwiches (change it up? no. even harder.) are excellent for a lot of folks. But being able to spend more time with family and to enjoy slightly more freedom and comfort with your work can come with major health and wellness benefits.
The business-brains of the world don’t see it that way. They’re looking at one stat: productivity. They’d argue it’s the most important metric. And if you’re in that boat, too, you might empathize with them. But I’m not convinced from the available data that that’s down. How we measure something like productivity is flawed and highly variable across fields. It’s also hard to tell how much work suffered from adjusting to working from home and from the pandemic at large. Putting everything in the “working from home” basket seems inaccurate.
But even if working from home did decrease productivity, we’re at a separate crossroads where we have to ask: do we care? Should we? Some of us might feel at first like we should — productivity as a metric is important, right?
But we’re a year out. More, now. Things haven’t fallen apart. To the contrary, they seem pretty… normal? Make no mistake, people are hurting, but exempting the obvious elephant of a virus in the room, most of those seem to be people who are out of work. It’s not that people aren’t working enough that’s hurting us, it’s that some people can’t work at all. So for a change as monumental as this, the consequences seem far from catastrophic. We’re doing fine.
Next, we have to consider our wellbeing. Is a more flexible work structure considerably beneficial to those who enjoy it? Potentially so much so that we could value it more than the value of any lost labor? Pre-pando, this is a question we seemed afraid to ask. Now I’m hopeful we can’t live without it. There is no reason to view the metric of productivity as inherently more important than personal wellness. Things need to be done, but in many cases, there’s room for flexibility.
If you’re among the as-things-were group that prefers in-person work, I recognize that this might not seem like your fight, but consider what the past year has been for you. Probably not great. Maybe one of the worst, because you’d rather spend part of your day at work. Maybe it’s the change in location that invigorates you, or separates your day — it doesn’t matter, you like it better, and that’s great. Now recognize that your home-worker counterparts feel that way inside the office. Your year-long nightmare is coming to an end. It was long and awful, but it came with the guarantee of an eventual expiration date. Theirs does not.
It’s worth admitting, of course, that the average worker is, at most, a small part of the problem here. The real issue is the business fetishists at the top who got to where they are by choosing to see employees as assets instead of people. In a lot of work environments, it’s not that productivity is valued more than employee wellbeing, it’s that it’s valued period. Wellbeing is an inconvenience that should be worked around when available.
Economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that advances in productivity would allow us to work fewer and fewer hours, eventually as few as 15 per week. His predicted world hasn’t materialized. We actually work more now than we did then, across all economic levels and classes. Productivity’s shot up. Technology has grown tremendously. And yet, we delude ourselves into viewing the forty-hour work week as a minimum rather than a maximum.
The capitalist class will not give us the freedom Keynes and his colleagues predicted, not because they can’t, but because it falls outside of their goals. Our health doesn’t compare to their ability to allocate and play with money.
It’s worth noting as we reach an end that I have seen no scientific proof that working from home elicits a necessary drop in productivity. I’m not sure one can be produced outside the toxic field of I/O psychology, and I’m wary of trusting any data that was produced during a stressful pandemic and that includes the work of those who would rather be in the office. To my knowledge, this definitive proof does not exist. So we should remember that it’s not that those in power refuse to trade a small amount of productivity for strong health benefits, but that they refuse to entertain those benefits at all, even without proof that productivity will shift.
They’re not going to fight for us. It’s time for us to stop fighting for them.