Part I: Will ongoing pandemics change work forever?
Scientists have begun to warn us that, even once researchers develop an effective vaccine for Covid-19, we could see an ongoing battle with new, lethal viruses. Covid-19, as well as SARS, Ebola, HIV, and others, jumped from animals to humans, as humans destroyed wildlife habitats, causing closer contact between humans and wild species. Deforestation, urbanization, and the marketing of animals and animal products all contributed to creating ideal conditions for humans to contract diseases found in animals that were previously unknown among humans. Since we don't seem to be slowing the rate at which we destroy wildlife habitats and encroach on animal territories, we're likely to see more pandemics in the future. Pandemics could become a key feature of the 21st century, not merely a memory from 2020.
There are a host of serious questions and problems that would emerge if pandemics became a long-term and common problem. Most relevant for Double Fourteen: what if the emergency work-from-home measures we've seen put in place over the past few months became our long-term reality? What if we see a permanent division between essential workers and remote workers? What if school and daycares permanently become places where contagions and illnesses spread at fast rates? What if outsourced childcare and education become rarities and office real estate bottoms out permanently? How will this dramatically shift our workplace?
It is clear that if this became our new reality something would have to give. Burning the candle at both ends (especially when that candle has five or six ends) is not sustainable in the long run.
Here's the million-dollar question. Could emergency work-from-home measures be harnessed to create a better working environment? Could we find long-term solutions to the chronic exhaustion we're collectively experiencing during this months-long Covid-19-induced experience? Could we make work possible when the boundaries between "work" and "home life" fray, substantially, over a period of many years?
Emergency Work from Home Versus Remote Work
We've all been told many times that emergency work from home is not equivalent to effective remote work. And that's true. Long-term fully distributed teams have well-crafted remote work policies, the technology and hardware necessary for remote work, and childcare arrangements that work for them. Emergency work from home, for many companies, has none of these things. If we're forced into pandemic-spurred permanent emergency work from home, many businesses simply won't have the resources to create the best remote work environments for their employees. In many cases, parents won't have access to the common forms of childcare for well-off families, like daycare and nannies.
Small businesses and nonprofits, in particular, will be vulnerable. Many small businesses simply don't have the ability to furnish all employees with a home computer, desk, and other necessary tools.
Parents and other caregivers, too, might find themselves in precarious positions without access to daycares, schools, and social outlets for their children.
These hurdles are the reason that fully remote teams before the onset of Covid-19 cluster around white collar, highly educated industries. It's easier to create remote teams when your employees already have access to some of the tools they need: home offices, working computers, nannies. It's harder to finance remote work for a team of individuals who do not have access through their own private finances to these tools.
So how do we reimagine emergency work from home if work from home becomes the new normal for everyone except essential workers? One possibility is that life becomes mostly miserable for everyone except people who earn high incomes. But I'd like to dream about a different future, one where happiness is shared more equitably.
Understanding Worker Needs
To begin to rethink what we'll need to do to make emergency work from home less than exhausting and demoralizing, let's consider our basic needs as employees on a day-to-day basis. Sure, we know that workers need hardware like computers and phones and means of communication like email, messaging apps, and social media. But those are tools that many emergency work from home employees currently have--and many employees are still miserable. What needs are we failing to meet in this current emergency work from home situation?
enough rest to do our work and take care of ourselves and others in our community
a place to work or a work schedule that does not do permanent harm to our bodies (by hunching, for example)
effective ways to manage the demands of caregiving and the workplace, without de-prioritizing either
work hours that allow for flexibility to do tasks like purchase food and visit healthcare providers in ways and at times that minimize risk for themselves and for essential workers in these industries
a way for children to
I'd argue that in an emergency context (even a semi-permanent one) these needs are actually much more essential than hardware, software, and home office spaces. Most people I know would happily give up their home offices if they could work fewer hours per week so that they could spend more time with their kids or more time sleeping or more time pursuing rejuvenating activities.
It's also becoming increasingly clear that we won't solve these problems in our current status quo. Here's the beginning of a lengthier list of ways that our work culture might change, should change, and can change, if we make it happen.
Uncommon Living Arrangements Become More Common
Plenty of families in the United States live in multi-generational homes or shared living spaces with other families or with roommates. People across the US live with roommates. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles often live together with young members of the family, and whole families are shacking up with friends to combat high rent, loneliness, and childcare expense. Despite this, however, the nuclear family living arrangement is still the ideal. We still picture the white picket fence, parents-with-children situation.
In a long-term emergency-driven world, the nuclear family arrangement has got to go. Sure, it can still work for millions of people, but let's make alternate living arrangements just as common.
I'm imagining communal living spaces where some individuals help provide childcare or schooling during work hours, some individuals are responsible for food preparation (and for growing food?!), others work for remote teams.
Or what about house-sharing? Living with another family provides built-in social options for parents and children, as well as new childcare options for the young ones. House-sharing also can promote more minimal living, which is better for the environment. I've said it before, but single-family homes should not be the way of the future.
Evidence is increasingly clear that both grandchildren and grandparents are happier and live longer when they are intimately involved in each other's lives. Let's take advantage of this and make multi-generational living arrangements more common for families of all communities and classes. But also, we shouldn't stop there. Let's make family housing cross the nuclear family boundary. What about arrangements where cousins, aunts, uncles, and others share spaces?
Perhaps this doesn't immediately seem like a work culture change. But it should be. When we live in close communities, we're able to split the burden of work, childcare, food preparation, and domestic tasks. We can enjoy these activities and spend time on them, rather than racing from one to the next in effort to fit everything essential into our days.
Children Re-Join Their Parents at Work
There have always been professions that have required workers to work apart from their families. Merchant, sailors, peddlers, and others would have traveled away from their families during the day and even for long periods of time. But for the majority of communities over the course of history, up until the advent of modern education system and the capitalist economy, adults would work in close proximity to their children. In many cases, children worked right alongside their parents, on farms, in early manufacturing (which often happened inside private homes), and in a variety of professions found in towns and cities.
This began to change in the modern period through the processes of urbanization and industrialization, which not only created a whole new set of professions, but also gave rise to new work spaces: the office, the factory, the school.
The notion that work and childcare responsibilities must be separated is, for the most part, a new idea. As we have seen over the past few months, emergency work from home has forced those two arenas to intersect and overlap in ways that many professions have not experienced in decades.
Many jobs these days are much easier to do when employees have a dedicated time in which to do them, with limited interruptions from children. But while this is the case, many jobs don't necessarily require a totally bifurcated day that separates "life," including childcare, from one long "work" block. In fact, a growing body of research demonstrates that workers are more creative when they work in shorter, concentrated chunks: two to three hours of focused work time, followed by long breaks to do other activities like exercise, eat, and spend time with friends and family.
If we begin to organize our work into blocks of shorter, interspersed blocks of time, then weaving childcare, not to mention self-care, activities into our days can become easier, provided we have other adults in our "pandemic pods" sharing the load. We may see more workers divide their work days into two or three blocks (which I currently do and love), arranged around similar blocks of time devoted to other activities.
Likewise, today many children observe their parents working less than they did in past eras, when children by necessity would have joined their parents at work, whether in the field, in a shop, or in a factory. In a permanent emergency situation, contemporary children may see their parents at work much more than did previously. This may have pros and cons, but it's something we will need to reckon with.
Part II of this article, coming soon.