It used to be that an important part of work was being at work.
If you’re not a freelancer or independent consultant or something, this “being at” meant a physical, on-site presence involving social interaction, moving through the employer’s space, drinking the employer’s coffee, attending meetings or talks at which you were just a listener, and even going to occasional work parties, like good-byes and farewells.
This is not to say laziness or shirking was involved. These activities required attention, and sometimes a mood.
In addition to being at work, an employee or faculty member or whatever may also have done a crushing amount of labor that produced a result: editing photos, writing reports, grading papers or exams, preparing lectures, presenting at a faculty meeting, herding deliveries at the front desk, ordering food for meetings, mocking up brochures or signage, and re-shelving book after book after book.
At my university, we worked and taught remotely from March 2020 to the end of August 2021. This means that all of the second part of work—actual labor, whether social, mental, or physical—was done at home. And all of what used to count for the first part of work, the “being at,” stopped counting as work. Not that anyone monitored our WFH or time usage, just that it felt like nothing if I was at home (my new workplace) and not hunched over my keyboard, producing something, staring at my laptop during a Teams meeting, or talking with grad students about their writing over Zoom.
My calendar became crammed because I was just home, right? No travel time, no boundary between the workplace and the homeplace.
Productivity (mine, others) increased during this time period. (Disclosure: I had no young children to care for or homeschool.) This was not just for me; it was the same for others employed by my university. One reason was the disappearance of commuting. Another was the adoption of technology.
Some good things happened in this new paradigm. I liked not having my early-evening hours occupied by a long period in the car or on the train.
But: my eyes hurt from peering at a screen without blinking for hours; my right hip hurt from this weird, un-ergonomic way I have of sitting in my desk chair leaning to my left; and my right space-bar-banging thumb frequently twitched from overuse.
Synchronous meetings with students or team-teaching workshops with favorite colleagues were enjoyable but made up a small fraction of my week.
Home felt like a knowledge factory.
But I got used to it. Didn’t you? In fact, sometimes at home when I was trying to work during daylight hours and someone in my household tried to talk to me I wanted to hold up my hand and say, I AM WORKING.
“See? See me here? I mean, I know I’m at the dining room table, and you keep walking through on your way to the kitchen, and your day starts at 11am while mine started at 8:30am, but the presence of this laptop and my back and head hunched over it with my face only 14 inches away, means that I AM WORKING.”
Internal dialogue fantasy. I did not say this.
But now, you know, we’re partly back, and it’s hybrid time. The work is split into days on campus and days at home. This means the return of being at work as that first part of work. And yet the expectations for the second part of work have remained very high and very countable.
It’s weird, though. I go to work (commuter rail, etc.), unpack my laptop, and sit at my desk (now in a cube – “hoteling” space – not in an office) and have meeting after meeting with colleagues or students via the Teams or Zoom video function.
There has been very little being at work since I started this in September. I do recall one time, walking on campus to get coffee in the campus store just to get away from my desk, and I bumped into a fond colleague who was sitting on a bench enjoying the mild day, student-watching. He seemed happy. I was happy.
I walked over, and we said “Hello.” And then we talked animatedly for more than 30 minutes and no work happened. I realized that being at work is no longer work. It’s down time. It’s unbillable hours. It’s work to do at night.
Not that I never did work at night before. Egad, teachers always give feedback and grade papers at night. Our laptops that we carry around are, figuratively, suitcases filled with student work to review and evaluate. It’s just that, before, the being at work was filled with countless, unplanned interactions with colleagues or students that in part constituted work.
And I liked that, and I was good at it. Furthermore, such unplanned interactions added meaning to my work and professional identity. In fact, I recall that when my kids were younger I would tell them anecdotes based on these interactions at dinner. They especially loved stories of students. My youngest, Grace, would sometimes ask, “Do you have any stories about naughty students?” Yes, I did.
This week, for the first time all semester, I was in a series of meetings (it’s been billed as a retreat) with one set of my colleagues. We’re vaccinated (verified), masked, and tested, according to campus protocol. I was not looking forward to this, unsure of how to conduct myself in such a situation and not really sure much would come of this.
I liked it.
On the first day, simply by people being in a room together, talking about their job roles and responsibilities, eating different lunches (“What did you get?”), and having sidebar conversations I found myself writing down ideas and observations, not just TODO’s.
On the second day, we were asked by the leader to go around the room and give one positive and one negative about the first day. For me, the positive was being together with actual people in the same real room. I used the words “spontaneity” and “chemistry” and “ineffable.”
I also felt community, and purpose, and that it came from something outside of myself and not just my relationship with my laptop or the Hollywood Squares on the screen.
Still, by the final day, though our conversations were still animated and on-topic, I found my emotional energy-level waning. I needed some alone time, some shut-the-door-I’m-writing space for my mind.
As we near the end of the semester, we have started to plan for spring. Recently, in a work survey we were asked how the hybrid model is going, and what I personally would like my on-campus days to be starting in January. I asked to increase from 2:3 (two days on campus and three days at home) to 3:2, adding, “That is, if there is a plan for there to be more in-person interaction.” (Note: I teach grad students, not undergrads, so I’ve had no classroom teaching this fall.)
I like getting things done, producing results; perhaps in the past I undervalued the being at work part of work. It’s not that I identify as an individual contributor or a true introvert; it’s just that I like to concentrate and finish things, which being at work sometimes interferes with. Now I recognize how valuable it is to relationships, knowledge sharing, and community.
The question is how to have the best of being at work—the spontaneous, in-person, unplanned interactions, along with some planned ones—with conditions for solitude and focus that enable deep thought, sustained work, and a better boundary between home time and work time.
I realize that, since the adoption of personal/home computers, this may have long been an important question. The pandemic has made it, for me, the question.