Where is “Home” When You Work-from-Home?
Work-from-home evangelists, please reconsider.
Prajakta Kharkar Nigam
Working from home, anywhere, is well on its way to becoming the norm for the future. Corporate behemoths such as Google have unambiguously set the tone by sending employees home for the rest of the year (perhaps, even longer).
New possibilities have emerged for remote workers.
Being a ‘digital nomad’, or a person who can work from anywhere so long as she has access to high-speed internet, is now becoming a mainstream option for professionals beyond the gig economy. Remote workers are indeed being embraced globally.
Further fueling the work-from-anywhere trend are countries launching new immigration schemes for people looking to work from low cost, exotic locations.
This BBC article lists new residency schemes that various destinations have put in place to attract location-independent employees. From Barbados in the Caribbean to Estonia in Scandinavia to Thailand in South East Asia, the competition for hosting high-quality talent has become intense.
Many of these places such as Chiang Mai, Bali or Valencia are already well-established destinations for digital workers who participate in the gig economy.
When in Chiang Mai for a month last year, I was pleasantly surprised to see how expat-friendly it already is.
It boasts world-class amenities such as international schools, state-of-the-art medical facilities, charming cafes with free wifi, massive playgrounds constructed out of bamboo for kids to play all day, co-working spaces, coding boot camps and so on already in place.
It is very tempting to those for whom working from home has recently become an option since the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even if not to another country, many new digital nomads are moving to smaller, less busy towns in the countryside. We had been travel-schooling our daughters for over a year when Covid-19 started spreading. When the opportunity came, we decided to return home to Canada after two months of being under mandatory lockdown in India.
Since working from home is gaining greater acceptance across industries, we have been able to move our family and our work to Whistler, instead of returning home to Toronto. Our kids have been forest-schooling for the full school day during the summer. We have taken to recreational biking.
All while still working full-time, but with an inspiring view of the mountains.
Inevitably, the emergence of such new possibilities are going to blur the lines between the workplace and home for a large majority of the working population.
An awakening — I had no idea work could be so cosy!
With sheltering-in-place during the Covid-19 pandemic, for the first time, the collective consciousness has awakened to the reality that home is so much more comfortable and personal than an office cubicle. It is also, often just as well-equipped or better to get any professional work done.
Writers are crafting stories with inspiring views from their balconies. Musicians are making music from home studios. Freelancers are producing killer content from the comfort of cosy pyjamas. Even business executives are making and mastering pitches via Zoom.
One of my ex-colleagues, Alice, is a senior leader in her industry, and easily one of the most dedicated women in my circle of friends. Getting on a call with her after several months, I was both surprised and delighted to hear her say that she now loves working from home.
She has had much more flexibility in organising calls and meetings, on her terms. Having moved into a new neighbourhood which has a skate park, she has taken the opportunity to develop her talent in skating. On sunny days, despite a relentless schedule, she can now carve out half an hour just before lunch to do a few rounds of skating.
An unexpected side effect of the pandemic, we see many employees (especially those who do not live with children) loving this work-from-home routine.
It saves time, makes you more efficient, gets more done — all without a long drawn commute, especially in the winters.
In the beginning, offices felt unnatural too.
However, Alice’s experience is far from universal. Discussions around the future of work have focussed on whether working from home is possible, productive and sustainable in the long run. To some, it just feels unnatural. Many people are sorely missing their cubicles or cabins and their colleagues.
They can’t wait for the pandemic to be history so that they could once again reclaim their happy (work)place. They are lonely. After all, many of us spent more time with colleagues every day than even our families.
After all, many of us spent more time with colleagues every day than even our families.
However, let me point out that “office” has not always been the default or even a natural place to work. An article “Death of the Office” in the Economist, shares that the first employees of the British East India Company confessed in their letters to friends, the weariness of working at a desk within four walls.
Spending the “golden hours from ten to four” within four pent up walls seemed unnatural to Charles Lamb, a founding employee of a company that had a promising future full of world conquests. In fact, another article also highlights that offices were created in an era when most work was done on paper.
That they have survived for so long in the digital age seems like a failure of the system to course-correct, something economists call a “market failure”.
So while working from home may seem unnatural to many who began their careers in this system, there is no reason why home cannot be the workplace of choice in the future.
But, are we asking the right question?
No one seems to be considering if we may be asking the wrong question. Instead of worrying about whether the home will be the future of work, we should stop and ask — will work be the future of home?
The right question to ask is not whether working from home will be the future of work. The right question is — will work be the future of home?
Will our homes become places where professional calls and online schooling dominate the ambience and walking around absentmindedly (or perhaps, too attentively) typing away into devices is the norm? And one where maintaining a semblance of the home as a sanctuary instead of a high-productivity-zone will become challenging?
Way before this pandemic made shelter-in-place and work-from-home the norms, I had been working as an economist for a large telecom company, mostly from home. Four days a week at home, and one day (sometimes two) at the office in downtown Toronto.
This work-life flexibility has been vital in allowing me to continue my career after my second daughter was born.
However, my experience with teleworking turbocharged a year before the pandemic hit. My husband and I took a tandem-sabbatical to take our children world-schooling.
For a year, we did not work conventionally, but we worked 24/7 as parents, homeschoolers, writers and documenters of our children’s educational experiences. I am very grateful for the benefits of ubiquitous wifi.
And yet, we could not ignore how much was lost because we worked from home.
At one point, we made a conscious decision not to post anything about our year-long journey on social media as it unfolded. Simply because that would mean “working” on our devices, from “home”.
We would miss out on the nuances of the place, the environment, the experience our children and we were living. It would mean not being present and not being “at home.”
Side-effects of a work-from-home routine
There are inexorable side-effects of working-from-home on the general quality of life. When work and home life occur in the same space, especially if the area is small, it is not work that suffers from minor disturbances such as children walking in on BBC interviews.
Instead, it is domestic life and family culture which suffers more because the work that we do to earn a living interferes in subtle but fundamental ways with the way a calm, attentive space for a family should function.
Home becomes too office-like and invariably, some office games can infringe into personal space. For example, employers fear that work may suffer at the hands of home, thus building an unspoken pressure to perform and show that you perform.
This pressure could lead to positive things where people do become more productive. Yet, in most cases, people end up spending too much time doing things for visibility — e.g. meetings and calls where their presence makes no difference beyond speaking up once or twice to show they are involved.
Ways to reconcile the two without too much impact both ways
Then what do we do when working from home becomes commonplace, or who knows even inevitable? Here are some practical ways that we established early on to guard our “home” from our “work”:
- I used to block off a chunk of time every single day as a meeting with myself. During this time, I would not accept meetings and calls and only worked on deep thinking, new ideas or readings.
- If you must work from home on certain days or all days, it is a good idea to carve out a tech-free floor or space. It can be as small as a dining table, or as large as an entire floor.
- New tools such as Thriving Families by Ariana Huffington’s Thrive Global platform allows families to draw healthy boundaries between work and life and build mental resilience and well-being in this new normal.
- In Whistler, where we live, we have created a home office where we take calls and then a separate space which is a quiet zone. A quiet area can be a small home library, a meditation room or even a hammock. Such a spot sends a clear signal to the mind when you are in the thinking mode.
- When it becomes possible again, there is a strong case for co-working spaces and even for going into the office frequently.
What is home, after all, in this new normal?
There is no way to predict precisely what work and workplaces will look like in the aftermath of this pandemic.
Will we revert to some sort of middle-ground between home offices and workplaces? With schools reopening in the UK and Canada, will work-from-home remain necessary?
What I know for sure, is that working from home may fundamentally alter the very essence of what home means. In his famous TED talk, author Pico Iyer says that we have many homes, waiting for us in many places. I interpret his message in this way — home is an idea; it is a feeling more than a place.
It is a sanctuary for the soul where our families gather, and where we can be who we are without fear of judgment. It is a place where memories are created, meaning is found in the day-to-day, and collective experience is shared.
Well then, what would home mean in this new normal, and when are we “at home”? Can we be “at home” when we work from home? The truth is many people will choose not to go back to the old normal of working five days a week from a designated office space.
So we must find ways to guard our homes, our family’s sanctuary from becoming crowded out by our professional pursuits.
Prajakta Kharkar Nigam
An economist turned writer, Prajakta looks at life as a series of experiments and observes it through the unique lens of being the mother of two young girls. She loves traveling, coaching, and exploring how our intel and consciousness work. Based in Whistler, she is writing a book about unschooling.