Covid-19 has altered our attitudes to work: McKinsey recently found that 52% of employees want more of a say about whether they work from home, an increase of nearly 22% on last year’s figure. This may not surprise lots of people, because working from home has some advantages. Being at home is nice, and working at home is a lot more like being at home. You can make lunch in your own kitchen, send emails on your sofa, and you’ve no need to forego your dressing gown throughout the day. But mark my words: this is a deeply troubling development because it shows that serious damage has been done to the notion that work and home are separate spheres in our lives. It is absolutely vital to our wellbeing, and maybe even our society, that our work-life and our home-life are separate.
The first point to make is that working from home is a bad deal for employees. Theoretically, employees save on the time and money that they would otherwise spend commuting into the office. Of course, it isn’t clear that they save money because they now have to pay for their own office space and supplies. And they certainly do not end up with more free time; the Office for National Statistics found that employees made to work from home in 2020 did 6 hours of unpaid overtime more than those who persevered in the office, every week! Home-workers also took about 40% as much sick leave as office-workers and were more likely to work late into the evening. It’s no surprise that working from home boosts productivity! Working from home means working longer, working later, and working despite illness.
But there’s something even more worrying about our new preference for working at home; the problem is that the home is a special place because it is a place intimately linked with family life. It is an environment in which your place is unconditional – you are welcome simply in virtue of who you are. Work, by contrast, is a place where people are welcome conditionally, where they are welcome once they prove their usefulness. When our home becomes a workplace, we risk losing the sense that we belong there unconditionally. This is, quite literally, to erode the foundations of our society. If you don’t yet recognise how disastrous this is, try listening to what people say when they’re trying to defend this. It is probably one of the most disgusting things you will ever read.
Here is a quote from an article on the Forbes website, entitled ‘How To Be The CEO Of Your Household: Running Your Home Like A Business’. It begins ‘After all, when you run a business, you’re orchestrating people and tasks. Are client deliverables really that different than getting Olivia to take out the trash?’ Already, I want to scream – YES! They’re totally different! Olivia is someone who looks to you for for guidance in life, and more importantly, for a sense of her own value. She is not an employee, contractually bound to doing certain tasks for money. Treating her like an employee is utterly wrong.
The comparisons between family members and employees are constant and unnerving. Digital chore apps are great because they are ‘just like paying an employee’. (Except, of course, a digital app means you don’t even have to talk to your child-labourers – a definite boost to productivity!) Don’t worry, the article advises that we be nice to our kids: ‘you wouldn’t expect your employees’ to work without ever making a mistake, and ‘the same is true for family life’. Except it isn’t. Nothing is the same about family life, because they are your family. You should accept that your family will make mistakes because you accept that they are human beings, who are valuable despite their flaws. You don’t mind their flaws because you love them, not because you’re a fair boss. I start gagging when the article mentions ‘play money’, a system where your children earn currency by doing chores, which they can then redeem for a ‘trip to a theme park or the movies’. That’s right kids – Daddy only spends quality time with productive kids – if you want to feel loved this year, it’s time to up those numbers on the hoover! The self-aggrandising undertones of the article come to the fore when official job titles are discussed – ‘Give your spouse and kids job titles,’ it says. We all know what comes next: ‘maybe you’re the CEO…’
I think blurring the boundaries between work and home life has negative effects on our attitudes towards work too. When home life becomes transactional, the only way to differentiate business from it is to make business even more brutal. It is no surprise, then, that the media have recently taken to glorifying psychopathy at work. ‘Should we all be a bit more psychopathic at work?’, asks the BBC. ‘We could all benefit from sometimes being more ruthless, fearless, self-confident, focused, mentally tough, charming or charismatic – all of which are traits of a psychopath.’ The Sun wrote an article: ‘Unleash your inner psychopath at work’. There have even been books written which glorify psychopaths for their productivity; ‘The Wisdom of Psychopaths’ and ‘The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success.’ The trend is deeply worrying, but not surprising. How would you expect people to behave at work, if you’re telling them to be a ruthless CEO at home?