We are working from home, but for many of us that doesn't mean quite what it did. Normally, working from home for me is the luxury of a quiet and studious day, alone in the house, where research and life reconnect in an inspiring way. Now that the house holds my partner's office, a home school and a self-isolating student, it feels crowded; everyone needs a place to work, the internet is jumpy and overloaded, and we are all anxious. The fridge seems to be self-emptying.
Working from home is usually thought of as a privilege - like flexible work, it's most often considered as an enlightened gift of the employer rather than as a right of the employee. How do things change when working from home is made a requirement by the employer, in order to comply with the dual exigency of a government-imposed lockdown in response to a global pandemic, and the need to keep business running?
Suppose we say that what we have actually just done by closing down workplaces and substituting "working from home" is in effect a requisition of people's homes as their place of work. This is not implausible. To requisition is to demand the supply of something by official order. It happens typically in times of emergency.
We have all been required to work from home, which means we have all been required to supply the equivalent of office space for our work.
These homes become offices with varying degrees of ease. While some have well-set-up home offices already, others are trying to set up a desk in the bedroom, or to work out time-share on the dining table, which is the only table in the house. While some occupy the home alone or with a compatible fellow adult, for others it's a much less easy space.
These differences become salient to terms of employment when there is no option but to work from home. One important way in which we are smoothing over such issues is by borrowing language from the equity lexicon that meant one thing when we were in normal circumstances, but means quite another now that we are in an emergency context. Take "flexible working arrangements", for example. Normally these imply the opportunity for movement between home and the office; and they imply negotiation to fit one set of demands with another. Now, in this crisis, a new set of powerful exigencies rules. There is no more movement. There is only home - which in the course of a few very intense weeks, has become rather un-homely.
Flexibility now means "just make this work!". The people who usually do the most work on "flexibility" - women - are very likely doing the most work on this right now too. Although many employers are certainly being supportive, let's not forget that those who until recently took their homes for private space are not gaining a privilege right now, but losing a set of prerogatives. We are paying a price for safety in a time of crisis that could not be reasonably exhorted in normal times. We should remember that when normality returns, lest the terms of crisis management themselves are normalised, as often happens.
So "working from home" at present means something like this: employers have requisitioned the home as a condition of continuing to work, and they have taken away the office as part of what was previously offered to enable people to work. Although this new circumstance clearly should change what "flexibility" is understood to be about, we are using the same word in changed contexts, in part as a way to manage a sense of continuity and recalibrate expectations. We are talking about "working from home" as if it were continuous with what it previously meant as an optional alternative to "working in the office".
In the present crisis, policymakers are mostly quite unreflective about this core pillar of our mitigation strategy - perhaps because they are used to taking the home for granted and to imagining it in a certain way. Acting as if home is a costless resource that is free for appropriation in an emergency, ignoring how home functions as a site of relatively invisible gendered relations of care and labour and imagining home as a largely frictionless site of interpersonal relations, come all too naturally, especially in a crisis.
This has to change, and urgently, because while this pillar of our strategy for containing COVID-19 is essential, it is also fragile. We must avoid taking this resource for granted and recall some "home truths". These include that for women, home remains one of the greatest reserves of inequality. Every statistic points to the disparities in average burdens of care in the household. Every trigger we know for domestic violence is currently intensifying. Workplace flexibility is supposed to mean accommodating work/life balance; in practice it still often means meeting deadlines by breastfeeding a baby at your desk while you park your six-year-old in front of Netflix. It is clear that latter version of "flexibility" is just not sustainable as a way of managing this time of crisis, but it is what many are resorting to now. There are other crises than COVID-19 brewing in this mix.
My own employer, the Australian National University, has made helpful and impressive allowances for the new situation we find ourselves in by specifying that where people are faced with complex situations working from home, 25 hours per week will be deemed a full-time load (and pro rata for part-time). This gives clarity on what full-time now means, and the offer seems considered and generous. But if you then think of the relative costs of working from home - imposed in differential ways depending on people's particular circumstances in the asset being requisitioned - perceptions may shift.
For example, compare my situation as someone with a good salary and a home office, with someone on the lower levels of the administrative scale who has a two-bedroom townhouse. She has a child who just began school this year and a partner also working from home. Her (their) working space is the dining table. She is worried about the costs of heating if she has to be at home in the winter. The employer won't pay for extra internet access - it's got to come from her tax claim as a "home office" expense (ironically, given the dining table). She's on four days a week and although she and her partner are trying to share care by tag-teaming in this small space, she's very worried about how she's even going to manage 20 hours.
The university just requisitioned her space when it mandated working from home. Would saying things this way help us to see that we might be doing more to systemically even out the burden imposed on her and the burden imposed on me? At present, the promise is that such situations will be reviewed on an individual basis. But seeing requisition as imposing unequal burdens suggests the onus might lie with employers to elaborate some principles about enabling all to work from home while distributing the cost that imposes more evenly. We might also consider whether what is on offer here is enough flexibility on the employer's part to compensate for the "flexibility" now being imposed on the employee. In effect, trading up to two hours a working day against all the other expenses of taking work into an under-equipped home is perhaps not quite as generous toward certain people as it might seem at first.
While I am completely behind the move to lockdown, and grateful to have an employer carefully addressing the issues so that we can maintain our core work, I worry that caught up in the urgency of crisis we risk forgetting just how problematic the "working from home" pillar of our strategy for mitigation is in multiple respects. Just because we accept the necessity of action in the context of emergency should not mean that we do not question its further implications and its practice. Others indeed may be suffering much more in this crisis than those lucky enough to continue to work from home - but that does not mean we should ignore how this work's burdens are distributed. Perhaps if we use the language of "requisitioning" we can see why it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that many people feel they have just lost their homes as a result of our move to "working from home".
- Dr Fiona Jenkins is the convenor of the ANU Gender Institute and an associate professor of philosophy at the ANU's Research School of Social Sciences.