Before COVID-19, I enjoyed working from home.
It meant the luxury of being able to sleep in a bit, skip the morning commute, and spend a quiet day doing some deep thinking in the comfort of my apartment.
Some days, I’d linger in bed with a big mug of coffee on the nightstand, until nearly 1100, musing and strategizing. I’d usually be alone in my condo building, with nothing and nobody to disturb me.
Now all my neighbours are here.
They’re listening to their music, running on their treadmills, and shouting into their Zoom calls.
The man from down the hall holds his teleconferences outside my door.
The Nosy Neighbourhood Watch is on full alert, ready to call the police at the first sign of an unnecessary delivery or an unauthorized visitor.
But it’s not just that.
My organization started to normalize remote work a while ago, but it was seen as a perk. As the CEO, I saw it as more of a reward or a privilege for good employees than a right. Although we were pretty flexible, our employees had to prove they could be productive outside the office.
But now, our people — all of them — must work from home if they want to keep their jobs since we need to both comply with measures to stop the pandemic and keep the organization going.
We’re engaged in one of the biggest acts of social solidarity in history, and we know it’s worthwhile. Some have been forced to sacrifice their livelihoods altogether, and others risk their lives to provide essential services.
We also know we’re lucky to be able to work while fighting to #flattenthecurve, but it comes at a cost even to us.
We’ve not only forced people to provide their own workspaces, we’ve taken over their homes.
In my case, I’m lucky to have a comfortable, spacious apartment with a designated office, although I hadn’t spent enough time setting it up to make it work as well as it suddenly needed to.
In contrast, colleagues struggle for space in a corner or a laundry room. Some only have one table or desk-like surface in the house, and some have none.
When we’re all going into the office, these lifestyle circumstances — sometimes choices, sometimes not — are mostly irrelevant. Now that we have no choice about working from home, some of them mean a severe degradation in the employee’s working conditions.
There’s nothing flexible about these arrangements when you have nowhere else to go. Instead of making work more comfortable, today’s circumstances risk making home much less so.
In my line of work, we pride ourselves on flexibility and adaptability. Right now, that means overcoming emotionally difficult circumstances and getting the job done.
We used to think of our homes as safe spaces, refuges from the difficulties of long days and demanding clients, and now we’ve lost that.
Even though I aspire to be “one of the good ones” as far as bosses are concerned, the fact is that my team and I are all paying a high price for safety in these abnormal times.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that working from home should be the norm when this crisis ends, but that’s something I will be rethinking. It’s different when you have no choice.
We’ve taken the use of employee’s homes for granted as part of our collective strategy in dealing with the economics of the pandemic.
We’ve been assuming that people’s private spaces are free for our use as employers, ignoring the gendered aspects of closing schools and keeping children at home, and failing to consider that domestic spaces can be very unsafe.
It all happened without much forethought.
These assumptions are not just unfair, but actually dangerous in light of the importance of the home for the COVID-19 containment strategy.
If we don’t take into account the facts like domestic inequality and the fact that women bear the brunt of most household tasks, or that almost every known societal factor for domestic violence is increasing, we risk seeing an explosion of other crises in addition to COVID-19.
My organization has tried to do right by the employees by making allowances for the new situation. We’ve told everyone that a 60 percent workload or about 24 hours per week are considered full-time for the duration of the crisis.
Although this gives everyone some confidence about what is expected of them, the impact will still hit some people differently.
For example, I compare my situation with that of our finance assistant.
She lives with her sister’s family in the suburbs and is working from a table in the basement that she shares with her niece and nephew. The other adults are arranged in the dining and living rooms upstairs. We’re reimbursing her for high-speed internet access, but she’s still sharing bandwidth with a bunch of other people, all of them crabby. Under these circumstances, her twenty-four hours end up spread over several days.
I wonder if the three hours a day we’re paying for will ever make up for what we’ve taken from her.
There’s tons of practical advice out there on how to make this easier: set up a regular schedule, get some exercise, have a designated workspace, even if it’s only a corner of your bedroom. Some of it might help, but there’s no guarantee.
For the record, I support all the social distancing measures we’ve put in place to protect our health care system and our society. I know that my employees and I are lucky to be able to carry out our core business and keep our jobs and our salaries.
Even as we acknowledge our privilege, we mustn’t ignore the problematic assumptions that underly our strategy. Others may be suffering more, and there might not be any real alternatives in the short-to-medium term, but we’ve still sacrificed our homes as safe havens.
Ironically, acknowledging that loss might be the first step to feeling normal again.