I’ve been working from home for most of my life. I have my home office where I’ve spent hours thinking, reading, writing, where I have my big wooden desk and a glass board for quick notes on post-its and long, frequently erased deliberations. I have my favourite spot on the sofa, and I know my most productive hours for the less-research-more-academic-life tasks. You could say I, out of all people, should have this work from home thing figured out.
And yet, when my husband claimed our lounge a couple of weeks ago and planted his laptop, riser, keyboard and mouse on our dining table, our apartment decidedly started to feel like it’s been conquered and colonised by… work. He said he would prefer to work from the office himself, but it is what it is, and we would make it work. I didn’t think he meant it quite literally.
What happened over the next few days was somewhat intriguing to me as a researcher. I tried not to, but it was within our working hours, so I decided I was allowed to work as an ethnographer — from home. Probably for the first time ever, I was able to observe (willingly or not) an office worker at work, especially during the liminal moments of starting up, getting a break, returning to work, and finishing work time. There were some moments like these, too:
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But as I reflected on my observations, I also grew to realise that if throughout the years we left the door to our home open (think occasional work from home days, rare overtime, taking your laptop home for the weekend because of an early meeting on Monday, and of course everything that I’m doing on a day-to-day basis), we’ve now just officially invited work inside (think proper office work, all suited up and armed with its projects, performance reviews and deliverables).
As a researcher of technology, I wasn’t surprised to find how specific work tools began to expand their territory beyond work time and work space. From one week to another, we started scheduling Zoom meetings with friends and family (because Zoom has superior video quality and you can easily get many people on a call, plus it integrates with different calendars, and have you seen the poll function?) instead of good old Skype, Facebook or even telephone calls. We started sharing photo albums on Google Drive instead of Facebook because it’s just easier to share them with all stakeholders (err, I mean family) and it’s easier to organise them and keep track of comments. We even watched a live-streamed event on some sort of a fancy platform that we had to download, register for and test before we were able to use it.
Home, that is our day-to-day, our everyday, our private and familial, was quietly being invaded by work technology. It was an easy conclusion to draw, so I tried to dig deeper. And I realised that it’s been going on for much longer than this, that over the years there have been some tools that were brought home, adapted to our uses and transformed how we did the everyday life. Once I got the roll going, I couldn’t stop:
- Excel for budgeting and planning our next trip
- PowerPoint for an embarrassing slideshow with photos of you as a child for your birthday
- Calendar for scheduling our social lives
- Various productivity tools for tracking chores and responsibility for their successful completion
- Physical activity rings on smart watches for making sure we hit our exercise targets
- Nutrition apps for ensuring we plan to get enough resources in and enough energy out
- …all the way to an app from our energy supplier that now allows us to track electricity consumption per hour so we can optimise usage and cut household costs.
All this technology, native to the world of work, while undoubtedly bringing in many, many benefits, also brought work practices and procedures home. By using these various tools in our day-to-day, we quite literally made work from our homes. Every tool, every technology nearly by definition is bound with specific ways of working with it, to particular ends. The moment we pick up a tool, we begin to use in the way it was designed to be used and we adapt or jettison our old ways. If we start using spreadsheets to plan a holiday, perhaps we won’t overspend, but we may lose some of the spontaneity in enjoying the parts of the trip that weren’t budgeted for. If I know my electricity is cheaper at 5 am, perhaps I should do my washing and vacuuming right then, even if it means grumpy family members and neighbours unconvinced of my cost-cutting tactics.
Tipping my hat to Stiegler, the point I’m making is this: with the progressive use of technologies designed for work at home, we remake our everyday life practices in the shape of work practices. This could well be the reason why we feel we lack work-life balance, why we have the impression that we work too much, and why we think there’s too much work and too little life. There may not be more proper work per se, but instead we invite technology to terraform our lives.