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I’ve always known that working from home is a double-edged sword. What I didn’t know was that I had wilfully ignored one side of the blade before COVID-19 came along.
The enjoyable and pleasingly practical benefits of my kitchen-table office aren’t quite what they used to be. Where once I partook of solitary barbecued lunches and midday baths – sometimes simultaneously – I now grill for my housebound family before sneaking into the tub. Where once I was instrumental in getting my wife and daughters out of the house each weekday, and had usually changed out of my housecoat to greet them when they returned from school and work, I am now instrumental as tech support for the endless virtual meetings and lessons on tap each day.
Prepandemic, I attributed the drawbacks of working from home more to the demands of my chosen profession than to my workplace environment. Toiling late into the evening, my face illuminated by the glow of my laptop’s screen, was the price I paid for my own ambition and the flexibility that working from home affords.
The shuttering of my wife’s downtown workplace and my children’s schools has displaced my rose-coloured glasses. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind having my kids around, even if their TikTok videos have inadvertently contravened several nondisclosure agreements. Working alongside my wife is fine, too, despite her piles of binders and Duo-Tangs threatening to crush the tiny potted succulents that were once my only lunchtime companions.
While relatively little has changed for me, my wife’s workdays have been turned upside down. This was expected to a certain extent – what with all-day child care and home-schooling added to our plates – but neither of us expected the drastic change in Angela’s office hours.
When the figurative whistle blew at her downtown office, Angela was usually able to leave work behind with the kind of “Yabba dabba doo!” aplomb I have long admired and envied. The occasional text or e-mail required her attention, of course, but for the most part work-life balance was a non-issue for her. For me it has always been an issue because my work had fewer boundaries, physical and otherwise. “Job creep,” as it’s known, comes with the freelancer territory.
Now, with those 9-to-5 boundaries removed, Angela has joined my nocturnal kitchen sessions. Her advice to office staff who hope the COVID-19 crisis will lend legitimacy to working from home: Be careful what you wish for.
For one thing, newly well-attended virtual meetings seem to last much longer than they should because someone can’t figure out how to turn their microphone on – and their camera off. Pyjama buttons are there for a reason, people! Virtual meetings have become so popular and prolific that I was recently invited to “meet to discuss having fewer meetings.” For another, the suspension of many diversions outside the home keeps us tethered to our home offices. No wonder #Caturday is trending on Tuesdays. No wonder Angela is receiving work e-mails after 9 p.m.
All this affirms my assertion that the best part of working from home is also the worst part of working from home. As long as you’re meeting deadlines and exceeding expectations, employers have no need to know, and no reason to care, where you are or what you’re doing at any given time. That’s why there’s nothing stopping you from carrying your laptop to a nearby park or combining a 2 p.m. coffee break with an axe-throwing competition.
At the same time, watching all seven episodes of Tiger King is close to impossible when an Australian client schedules a midnight Zoom meeting mere seconds after you bid your offspring goodnight. Freelancers are hired precisely because they can respond at any hour. There is no slipperier slope when it comes to work-life balance.
This slope is getting crowded, and not just because of the pandemic-fuelled office exodus and rise of the gig economy. Nap rooms have become common workplace amenities. Pet-friendly, foosball-equipped offices aim to emulate the comforts of home. Enormous mixed-use real-estate developments have corporate headquarters at their hearts. While these conveniences may improve employee productivity – an endgame that itself is being called into question amid COVID-19 – they also show how the line between work and life is being blurred like never before. Do they make it easier to achieve a healthy work-life balance? Or do they ensure that productivity will always triumph over personal time? To paraphrase a Metric lyric: “Buy a condo to live at work, live at work to pay for this condo.”
Job creep may be disconcerting, but it won’t scare me away from the kitchen table. As much as I’d like to be more assertive with clients who throw my work-life balance out of whack – and risk losing income in the process – the pros of working at home still outweigh the cons for me.
But not for everyone. Ask my wife about returning to the office and she’ll tell you she’s looking forward to it. Ask me about having the kitchen table all to myself again and I’ll tell you absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Adam Bisby lives in Toronto.