Working from home: here we go again

Ross Hall

July 12, 2021
(Updated on July 14, 2021)

Photograph of laptop on a table with a mug of coffee and TV remote nearby

Where we work has become another source of division in our splintered society. On the one hand, we have those proclaiming the pandemic is over and we must now return to our offices. Facing them are the “work from home” advocates who point to improved personal productivity and the desire to find a healthy balance between work and home.

Some of us have seen this before, albeit not in the same splintered, factional fashion. In the mid-90s groupware such as Lotus Notes tried to normalise remote working. Then we had the “Internet” in the mid-2000s. Now our greatest driver of change is an invisible virus.

My “working from home” life started in the first Lotus Notes fuelled wave. It’s continued on-and-off ever since. I’m seeing discussions and debates that trigger endless bouts of déjà vu.

Needless to say, I have reservations.

The pressure to build housing has given us some horrific apartments. Tiny bedrooms, bad light, poor ventilation, non-existent soundproofing. Somehow we’re expected to both live and work in these spaces. We can do it with a laptop on the kitchen table, or posed on a sofa in the living room. Ergonomics be damned.

These spaces are barely fit to be homes, let alone places of productive work.

Yet the middle-class myth of comfortable home working continues, fed with Pinterest boards, multi-use furniture options and countless blog posts that would make an ergonomist turn in their task appropriate grave.

Photo of a man sitting on a sofa with a laptop on his legs drinking coffee
The fantasy of working from home. Photo by Malte Helmhold on Unsplash

This middle-class view of remote working hides other dangers. Where is the vital psychological separation between work and home when the two merge? Does living in our workspace rob us of the vital context switching that keeps us sane? Is it amplified when we can’t close the door on work because we don’t have the space?

There are other challenges. Interactions with others feed so much of our sense of psychological well-being. This isn’t just 30 minute “team building” zoom calls, it’s the casual chats, gossip and human proximity that recharges our social batteries. We pick up important social and cultural cues from interactions we might not even register.

Of course there are those who can and will thrive in these environments. Fair play to them. The rest of us will yield to a societal evolution that’s craved working in groups for millennia.

Some form of hybrid working will be touted as “The Solution” (again). I dare say we’ll do 3 days in the office, 2 at home or some combination of both. Gradually more of us will drift back as we realise we like being around other people. If history is any judge, it’ll take 3-4 years before “office hours in the office” becomes the norm again.

Maybe the answer is working near-home. Not just finding jobs on our doorsteps, but making better use of local co-working spaces. If what we need is a comfortable, well designed and social space in which to work, who says it has to be with people from the same company? Could our empty shops and restaurants find a new lease of life as offices for the local community?

For the time being the technology led wet-dream of “home working” will prevail. I just hope you’re strong enough to get through it.

I'm Ross Hall, a writer and researcher based in Kobe, Japan. You can talk to me about B2B, sustainability and strategic management.

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