In the advancing modern world, it’s not news that the presence of telecommuting, working from home, remote work, or any other description of avoiding the office in the pursuit of work has been on the rise for a number of years. It’s also not news that recent events have caused an unpredicted and rapid rise in this trend — at least temporarily.
Already, many debate whether this forced experiment of sorts has been successful, thereby establishing the notion that work can be done from home in more ways than expected, or whether we are just barely holding it together enough to weather the storm and wait with bated breath for a chance to get back to the office.
Certainly, many businesses now find that they can conduct some or all of their business remotely, with the only novel cost being in frayed nerves derived from trying to figure out unfamiliar tools of communication. The adaptations we’ve been forced towards, willingly or otherwise, have enabled a proving ground for a style of work we’re often too hesitant or time-pressed to examine in any depth voluntarily.
Unsurprisingly, reactions to this recent change vary. Not everyone can expect to adapt to remote work the same way or with the same level of ease, and many factors figure into the level of difficulty. But the found successes, however limited, do serve to enforce the notion that for better or worse, with ease or with difficulty, the deed can be done — remote work is a plausible reality.
But even when successful from an organizational or monetary point of view, the personal side of the problem is of more concern for some: active parents perhaps more than anyone. The argument may be presented that work often demands too great a time investment for someone who is also in the process of rearing a child; the disruptions found in telecommute en masse, among those with children, might reflect a lack of such balance, causing a struggle between having enough time to get work done and time to successfully perform the daily routines of raising a child (or children). Only the artificial differentiation of the office and the resulting unavoidable requirement of external childcare has kept us, in this view, from paying as close attention to this time imbalance in the past.
But there is, in this attitude, a latent assumption that work should make way for life — if balancing the duties of work and child-rearing becomes overwhelming, it is the fault of work for requiring so much of our time. We can approve of this notion conceptually while simultaneously facing the reality that we are paid to work, not to raise a family. And while we could also argue the idea of societal payments toward successful childrearing, we once again face the stark realities of the derivation of value sourcing from direct benefit given to those for whom we produce work, which definitely lies outside of the domain of childrearing, a domain which provides only potential, conceptual benefit to society as a whole and not to any single individual in the here and now.
If we are to address the notion of work-life balance in this way, then, it must be on its own footing — that is, resolving the questions of the relationship between profit and time, and the structure of our day to day lives. How does time spent at work translate into amount of value provided? Does the voluntary nature of childrearing impose its own restrictions on the relatively non-voluntary nature of work? Should the former limitations be encouraged to change or do they reflect a fundamental and natural limit on our choices? Does childrearing constitute a different life paradigm that should bear on how we emphasize the balance of our time?
In any case, it’s all very new. For many people, the entire paradigm of remote work is new. For society as a whole, the changed paradigm of how work gets conducted is new. If we do think of this adoption of remote work as an experiment, it’s one that has so far been far too brief and possesses too many confounding variables to determine a result.
It takes time, often a lot of time, for people to adapt to remote work — this holds true even for industries where telecommute is common. Other industries have been forced to adopt remote work, some for the first time beyond trivial applications, and for individuals in those domains the change is even slower and more challenging.
Months would hardly be enough time to render judgement on whether someone is adapting well to remote work; certainly a period of a few weeks is far too short to reach any conclusions. This is especially true given the abrupt nature of the transition, a disruption which has incurred additional chaos into the transition. It is therefore that much more difficult to say whether mass telecommuting “works.”
But there is one positive of having had such a hasty, rude transition — we often learn best, adapt best, in a crisis. This isn’t a case of a few individuals in an office piloting a program to try out working from home. This isn’t someone discovering they get more work done when they’re at their home office and trying to spend more time there rather than at HQ. This is a case of sudden, massive movements from office to home, entire organizations altering their processes and communications within days. The chaos that this has presented to those attempting to adapt may be offset by the critical lessons which, as a result of the very nature of the problem, get learned fast and hard. When the livelihood not only of yourself, or of your office, but of an entire company, or an entire industry, depends on the successful transition to remote work, we all have a reason to learn and learn fast.
If mass remote work is a success, it may not feel like it — routine and process are too much in flux to determine that right now. If remote work is a failure, hindsight may not even make clear why — there’s too much going on, too many variables that can be conflated and confused. But this transition can, and will, lead to questions. Even if this transition proves temporary, we will have been forced to learn new ways of working, experienced a radically different way of conducting business as a new norm, questioned the whys and hows of processes we’ve often never bothered to question before. And the result of that questioning can only be positive on the sum.