The case against working at home
I completely get the utopian fantasy of working from home: the baby napping in his crib in the next room, the gold light filtering in through the window, a tagine made with vegetables from the farmers market simmering on the stove, while you are answering emails and brainstorming ideas, the dream of modern connected life. But is that the way it really works out?
Or, in fact, is eight-tenths of your attention during a pressing work call focused on whether the clamouring hooligans in the next room are going to agitate for something, or burst in, or stay quiet? Is a large unmapped portion of your brain engaged in trivial domestic calculations: did I remember to pay the cable bill? Is it time to change the laundry and put it into the dryer? Is your attention, in truth, divided, conquered? (And let's be honest: the reason we want to work at home is that we want our attention to be divided.)
As a professor and writer, who works both from home and office, I don't feel hugely qualified to comment on matters of corporate policy. But in the recent hullabaloo over Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's decision to stop allowing employees to work from home, I do wonder about all the righteous insistence that we should tear down the walls, break down the barriers and all toil away in our bathtubs. I don't entirely buy the line that domestic life can hum on unfettered around us as we are all concentrating like Tolstoy on the task at hand.
People argue that they can work just as efficiently, or more efficiently from home, but efficiency is not the only measure of whether working at home is a good idea. Is it possible that our ideas, our creativity, our wilder bursts of thought are often, or at least sometimes better achieved outside the home, in a more neutral space? I know from experience that it's not that simple to transport your work thoughts into your house. I know what it is like to carry a laptop to a coffee shop, just to shake free of the clutter of home thoughts. One of the great thinkers on work-life conditions, Virginia Woolf, argued that our ideas themselves are subtly, but importantly, affected by the mundane, material conditions surrounding us. In 'A Room of One's Own', she talks about the intangible but crucial effect on one's concentration and quality of thought of things as seemingly superficial or irrelevant as a meal. She wrote that our ideas "are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in."
Of course those who have spent a lot of time working at home will recognise that being in your pyjamas, in your bed, seeing little sticky handprints that you should really clean up, remembering an argument you had the night before in that same room, creates a different state of mind than the office state of mind. One of the reasons that the office must have been invented is to banish for a little while that home self, to get away from her and her preoccupations.
In this weirdly emotional debate, we should at least be willing to admit that something is lost and something is gained from working at home. That the comfort and flexibility are counteracted by certain constrictions on the imagination, by a competition of focus, even by the relaxation and familiarity of home. In one of the places I work, there were cries this week that Mayer is "draconian" in suggesting that her employees should drag themselves into the office, but to me it doesn't seem outrageous or draconian or Mussolini-like that a certain employer might choose to have her employees work in the office.
It seems instead that the dreamers of the technological dream have already gotten what they wanted; they have already achieved the perfect, ominous mingling of our attention: no matter where we work, whether the commute is to an office or the kitchen table, the line between our professional lives and our homes have basically been obliterated. You can be in bed with a boyfriend and emailing your boss, reading a child to sleep and fielding a text from your assistant. The separation between "home" and "work" is largely fictional as it is. It seems sometimes that our persistent, if silly, fantasy of "having it all" often translates into having it all in the same minute. Which is to say that there are currently very few spaces you can go where your work cannot find you, very few moments where you are not available to both work and home. Rather than desperately pursuing the any further mingling, the separation of work and life might in fact be something to strive for or long for, something rare and more precious than we think.
Those up in arms about Mayer's disrespect for "the work-life balance" should consider this possibility: "the work-life balance" might be best served by keeping work at work. By trying to pursue that tiny sliver of a chance of keeping the office and the thousands of meaningless work details and memos and preoccupations out of your home.