Opinion: The Hidden Danger of Work From Home

Working from home is great, but requires a new set of rules.
Working from home is great, but requires a new set of rules. Photo by David Martyn Hunt/Flickr
Since COVID began, there has been a revolution in remote work. There are now three times more remote jobs than there were in 2020, and the number is growing. I have dozens of friends who left the office and never went back. Most of them say it’s the best move they ever made.

As someone that has worked remotely for nearly a decade, I can attest to the benefits. My commute is a matter of feet, I’m always home when my kid gets out of school, cooking and cleaning gets done during downtime, and no one complains about all the skulls I have on my desk. I mean, the cat wonders in and yells at me sometimes, but I just tell him “I’m right on top of that, Rose,” and that seems to do the trick.

A lot of companies don’t like this shift. Between justifying commercial space rent and managers liking in person control, companies have tried to force people back to the office. It’s backfiring badly. Even here in Texas, workers go on strike to keep their remote work.

We need to keep that strike in mind, because it’s going to be a necessary part of remote work and also harder to pull off because we’re all home.

Working from home requires extremely sturdy boundaries between you and your bosses regarding your time and space. Petty middle managers get it into their heads that allowing you to work from home is an act of magnanimity on their part, and as such you should always be on call. If you’re not careful, a few urgent after-hours requests become regular 24/7 workdays.

Take it from a person who transformed every hobby I’ve ever had to into paid copy: this has an acidic effect on your ability to decompress and enjoy your own home. The more you turn your home into a workplace, the less able you are to settle there. This leads to a dopamine deficiency because your brain is never sure if you’re “done” with work.

Some bosses will take every inch of your life if they can. It’s just the way capitalism works. When you work from home, enforce your off hours as stringently as you would if you were leaving the building. Work can and will colonize your home. Some bosses have already figured out that they can squeeze free extra hours from you this way and save on the rent of an office. It can’t be a tradeoff we’re willing to sacrifice for the comfort of remote working.

The other danger is the difficulty of unionizing when you don’t see your coworkers in person. In the 19th Century, American garment workers were contract labor that were kept away from each other in rundown tenements where they also lived. Most were isolated from each other, and it made forming a labor organization very hard. It wasn’t until the birth of the modern factory that the garment industry was finally able to start unionizing.

Granted, we have communication capabilities that would have seemed like black magic to the workers a century and change ago, but it’s worth thinking about how little we talk to our colleagues. I have only a handful of other writers that I speak to regularly. Mostly, I talk to my bosses and occasionally payroll. I rarely take the time to meet a peer for lunch and talk about our shared experiences with work.

It’s very dangerous for us to all become our own little outposts of productivity. When we’re alone and isolated, we are easier to control. Say what you will about office politics and toxic environments, there is a worth in having a shared identity as workers of a particular place. When that is lost, we stop being a workforce and start being vassals.

If work from home is truly going to improve our lives, we have to do two things. One: establish exactly what is required of you and when, then stick to the letter of that. Bosses can call this quiet quitting all they want, but it is the fair exchange of labor for pay.

Two: take time to get to know the people on your level. Introduce yourself via email, learn a little about their families, and check in with them regularly. Make a pact to tell each other when the company does something to screw you. Form a union if you can, but if not, at least form a network of solidarity and communication.

There is no reason to think that predatory bosses will not follow you to your home office, albeit (and hopefully) electronically. As with the garment industry, they’ve done it before. This is an exciting time for workers who are wrestling time lost to commuting back under their control, but it’s also a chance for the wealthy to re-rig the game in their favor. We can’t let them.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner