One of the many unknowns in this unprecedented COVID-19 era is just how dramatically the nature of work will change, particularly for those whose jobs allow for telecommuting and working from home. Potential pressure on jobs from automation is ranges from mild to potentially catastrophic depending on whom you talk to, but in the immediate future we may begin to see a significant amount of work done remotely that used to take place in person, now that companies are beginning to both realize it can be done and explore new ways to do it.
Many observers had viewed this as a positive development on many fronts: parents can spend more time with their children, carbon emissions from travel and commuting can be reduced, and other related inefficiencies for the employer and inconveniences for the employee can be eliminated. Hours could in theory be reduced as happier workers could focus on their work only when they intended to work, rather than be stuck in an office for 8-10 hours, a majority of which tend to be spent neither pleasantly nor productively.
But as with so much of modern life in which efficiencies that should lead to a more utopian lifestyle actually lead to a dystopian crunch of overwork, the COVID-19 era is turning out to be a nightmare for telecommuters. People working from home find themselves not only having to juggle the pressures of home life without the release valves of school, babysitters, gyms, coffee shops, bars and movie theaters, they are also working longer hours than ever before:
Six weeks into a nationwide work-from-home experiment with no end in sight, whatever boundaries remained between work and life have almost entirely disappeared.
With many living a few steps from their offices, America’s always-on work culture has reached new heights. The 9-to-5 workday, or any semblance of it, seems like a relic of a bygone era. Long gone are the regretful formalities for calling or emailing at inappropriate times. Burnt-out employees feel like they have even less free time than when they wasted hours commuting.
Some predicted the great work-from-home migration of the pandemic would usher-in a new age of flexible work arrangements. As of 2017 only 3% of full-time workers in the U.S. said they “primarily” worked out of a home office in a Census Bureau survey. Then millions sheltered at home for what was originally thought to be a temporary hiatus. Many mapped out plans to fill time they would’ve spent commuting to take up new hobbies, like learning a foreign language, baking or getting into the best shape of their lives. It looked like the beginnings of a telecommuting revolution.
A month and a half later, people are overworked, stressed, and eager to get back to the office. In the U.S., homebound employees are logging three hours more per day on the job than before city and state-wide lockdowns, according to data from NordVPN, which tracks when users connect and disconnect from its service. Out of all countries that NordVPN tracks, U.S. workers had tacked on the most hours. In France, Spain, and the U.K. the day has stretched an additional two hours, NordVPN’s data found. Italy saw no change at all.
Moral considerations aside, from a purely capitalist utilitarian perspective there is no discernable productive reason for this. Economic activity has slowed overall in the economy. In most industries except those under particular stress due to the epidemic, there should literally be much less to do than there was before–and even before, there was such an abundance of unnecessary make-work in corporate life that entire books have been written and movements spawned around decreasing it.
The causes of the increase in misery seem to come down to two issues: first, there is no excuse or escape from work when colleagues and bosses know you’re never more than a quick walk to your workstation. Sure, that diaper might need changing, the pet might be about to relieve themselves on the floor and you and your partner might be enduring a traumatic long-term experiment in the psychological torture of social isolation, but who cares? Your boss knows you got that email about that memo, and he knows you’re pretty close to your computer. Chop chop!
Second, bosses concerned about a lack of productivity and control over a team of employees working from home are often increasing their workloads and maximizing digital surveillance of their working time to ensure that no one slacks off and that quotas are met. This is borderline sociopathic to impose on employees whose household duties have obviously increased due to being shut in without the benefit of extraneous assistance or escape for mental health, but it’s a widespread phenomenon nonetheless.
This isn’t just a temporary problem under COVID-19, either. A major transformation of our way of life is coming in the near-to-medium-term future with level-4 autonomous vehicles. A big portion of most office workers’ days are spent trapped behind the wheel of a car, in which they are functionally unable to do work but are nonetheless stressed by the dangerous act of driving. In theory, an autonomous vehicle should improve their quality of life, letting them sleep or catch a TV show on the way to the office. In reality, work creep is likely to set in, as workers whose days used to start at 9am after they arrived at the office will simply start at 8am instead as soon as they get into the bubble of their autonomous mini-office. A workday that was supposed to end at 5pm will continue until 6pm as they use their commute at home to catch up on more email.
It is unlikely that corporations with step in to solve this problem on their own. A combination of labor union pressure and government regulation will be needed to step in and ensure that changes to our lives that should improve human dignity and mental health do not become yet another opportunity for employers to dominate our time and limited mental energy. Even workers from home deserve guaranteed lunch and mental health breaks. An eight-hour workday should mean an eight-hour workday, no matter how close to your work computer you happen to be.
This health and economic crisis is already difficult and deadly enough for everyone, including and especially essential and health workers who don’t have the luxury to stay home, without the corporate world further immiserating everyone doing their part to work from home as much as possible, for no good reason at all.