When work is home and home is work

“Work at Home,” Dejan Krsmanovic (2018), Flickr via a cc license

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.

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