Work-life balance is all wrong

In a world where so many people are working from home, what does “working” from home really mean anyway?

Working from home isn’t a new thing — not by a long shot — but it feels pretty novel right now. This spring’s closure of schools as well as child care facilities, wearing masks, and blue tape on the ground spaced to six foot (social) distances as a result of the COVID-19 crisis seemed like a Band-Aid to solve a temporary problem in the United States (and around the world) but now, it resembles a long-term solution that’s not likely to be resolved any time soon.

Where am I going with all of this? Let’s look at how we work — by that, I mean how we used to work, then how we’re currently working, and how we might be working in the future. And along the way, we’ll look at the phrase work-life balance and how it’s out of wack.

Let’s get into some history

For most of our species’ history, humans have worked from or in proximity to the home — hunting, gathering, or fishing (source). Even when nomadic, we made it a point to stay close, simply by carrying our home with us — a bit like a turtle’s shell on its back — or finding it where we were. Let’s look one of these examples, the oldest known hearth discovered in Qesem Cave in the countryside east of Tel Aviv. National Geographic described this cave as such:

…[containing] a thick bed of ash in the center of the cave. Using infrared spectroscopy, they were able to determine that the tiny bits of bone fragment mingled among the ash had been heated to high temperatures. That suggests this fire pit was used for cooking.

The ashes were not the product of a single blazing bonfire one night at a long-ago barbecue, though. Microscopic analysis of a cross section of the ash bed revealed a vast number of microstrata — layer upon layer of ancient ash, the residue of many, many fires built there over a long period of time.

This means that the homo sapiens — as opposed to homo erectus or neanderthals — that came here not only used this earliest fire for warmth and light but they came back to this cave over and over, cooking on it.

By the Neolithic period (also known as the “New Stone Age” which began about 12,000 years ago), we had started developing agriculture (cultivating plants and raising animals) and settled down to build homes, becoming less nomadic and more stationary (source).

“Sennedjem and Iineferti in the Fields of Iaru” — original ca. 1295–1213 B.C. The east wall of Sennedjem’s vaulted crypt is decorated with a vignette that illustrates spell number 110 in the Book of the Dead. On view is a facsimile done in 1922 at The Met Fifth Avenue, more info here.

Later, in some parts of Asia, Europe, and the Americas, work and home met in a single-room narrow building called a longhouse. Many were built from timber and often represent the earliest forms of permanent structure in many cultures (source). Some of these dwellings were built such that animals could come in at night and during the winter so that the collective body heat would warm the whole space for humans and animals. Animal theft prevention was also a concern and motivation.

A medieval longhouse — drawing by Peter Dunn

In these situations, animals lived in one section while people (some their caretakers) inhabited another. In the home space, there was some combination of kitchen, eating, and sleeping areas. The work area would have been some kind of compliment to the kept animals — like a creamery, butcher, or tannery.

Some longhouses in Asia and the Americas were built on stilts and animals were kept on the ground just underneath the structure. The work space in a longhouse or some other kind of home (housebarns in western Europe, Scandinavia, and the British Isles; nakamals by communities in Vanuatu; wharenui by the Māori people in New Zealand; etc.) accommodated for a number of other activities — whether it had to do with food processing/storage or handcrafts such as spinning, weaving, and clothes making (source).

I would say that that the Muslim/European castle, North African ksar/qsar (Maghrebi Arabic for fortified village), Japanese shiro, Indian fort, Egyptian/Chinese walled settlements, etc. were other manifestations of this principle of work’s proximity to home. After all, these are also a kind of a fortified structure where a wide variety of people came together to work and (sometimes) live inside the complex or would travel from a nearby location. The types of jobs included blacksmiths, kitchen staff, soldiers, mill workers, rope-makers, candle-makers, potters, and basket-weavers among others. The same concept is also generally true of a palace or manor house, minus the fortifications and soldiers.

Fast forward to when many people kept their home just above, behind, or near their place of business — which might’ve been a shop or some other space for commerce or work. It was fairly common for apprentices to live with the families who employed them, sleeping in the workrooms, in the shop/workshop, near the hearth, or in one of the smaller rooms. And children were also key characters in these work scenes, sometimes as young as five years old, as an essential part of the economy at that time — working on family/small farms and as indentured servants for others.

During this time, the Venn diagram of work and home had a ton of overlap in terms of proximity to each other and shared effort

It’s only in the last 200 years that the term home has come to mean a physical space in which we only sleep, cook, eat, shower/bathe, relax, etc. In other words, the parts of our life that aren’t work.

The Industrial Revolution — which occurred in Europe and the U.S. during 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840 — would drastically transform some of these long held conventions of work and home.

From left to right: the flying shuttle (invented by John Kay in 1733), the spinning jenny (invented by James Hargreaves in 1764), and the water frame (developed and patented by Richard Arkwright in 1769). The flying shuttle was an improvement to looms that enabled a single weaver to weave faster and produce wider pieces of cloth, the spinning jenny was a hand-powered machine that made it possible to spin more than one ball of yarn or thread, and the water frame was a spinning frame that could produce stronger yarn threads.

During this time, advances in steam power led to new technological advances in how goods were constructed (like the flying shuttle, the spinning jenny, the water frame, pictured above, as well as new ways to produce iron and steel). This different kind of work began to take place in factories and not in homes.

These changes were followed by increasing demands in the transportation industry — in terms of moving a greater number of goods from point a to point b but also a growing number of people who also needed to be shuttled greater distances more regularly. Patterns of growth could be seen in other industries as well, including millwork (grain, paper, cotton), metal foundries, distilleries, and getting water from one place to another. And that meant more natural resources were needed — chief among them: iron ores, coal (which is used to generate electricity or steam power as well as iron and steel making), wood, wool, and other agricultural products.

There was a second period of rapid industrialization, sometimes called the Technological Revolution, during the late 19th century into the early 20th century. During this, there were many rapid advances in Germany, U.S., UK, France, Netherlands, Italy, and Japan mainly in steelmaking, electricity and chemical production, and a variety of different modern industries as a result of new technological systems such as electrical power and telephones.

I would contend that both of these periods of industrialization put people’s work farther and farther from home. Many households during this time were supported by a single person or a group of people who went ‘out to work’ to physical spaces that housed large machines, complicated processes, and the groups of people needed to produce these materials and goods.

Social reforms also played an important role in pushing work out of the home. Removing fur, for instance, from animal hides in a living space could cause serious illness, injury, or death — and probably shouldn’t be done in the same or near the space in which you you live. Operating a metal smithing, liquor distilling, or abattoir business in or near your home (as a few examples) poses its own kinds of risks and dangers. And not having children as part of the available workforce also plays a part — I’m not making a case for child labor, I’m simply stating that it impacts the economics of running a home-based business.

The last 100 years

More recently, many things have happened that changed work as well as its relationship to the home — among them two World Wars, additional technological advances (telegraph, typewriters, fax machines, computers), changes in workplace configurations (cubicles versus open office), more households organizing as nuclear families (as opposed to extended families) with one or both adults working (read: less or no kids), and development and growth of public transportation options that enabled workers to commute from home relatively inexpensively (as well as city centers being a kind of activity hub). It feels like during this time, work and the home have almost become two separate entities.

More recently, what the Venn diagram of work and home looks in terms of proximity to each other and shared effort

But in the age of computers and knowledge work, many businesses are now reconsidering previous human patterns. An article this year from The Guardian identifies a trend in the early 1970s that embraced the idea of working separate from a workplace:

Networked computers installed in an employee’s home would revolutionise the modern corporation. Teleworking — as it became known — would free humanity from the grind of the daily commute, enabling an easier blend of work and family life. isfree/2020/apr/12/working-from-home-history-coronavirus-uk-lockdown

Sounds familiar, huh?

And it only picks up from there with all sorts of chatter and conversation about working from home. In his book, The Ecological Vision, Peter Drucker, an Austrian-born American management consultant, declared that “commuting to office work is obsolete. It is now infinitely easier, cheaper and faster to do what the nineteenth century could not do: move information, and with it office work, to where the people are.” Maybe this is a response to so much of our work being done increasingly out of and far from home. Maybe it’s some innate sense of conservation and a desire to revert back to our previous mode.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, working from home has been on the rise since 1980. The reasons are many, including high gas prices, resource scarcity, climate change, and urbanization among others. In 2010, 13.4 million people worked at least one day at home per week in the U.S. — an increase of over 4 million people (35%) in the last decade (source). According to the Office for National Statistics, 5% of the UK’s labor force worked mainly from home in 2019, but well over 25% had some experience of home-working (source).

So, even before COVID-19, working from home was on the rise.

Taxonomy matters

With all of that said, work and life don’t need to be balanced, rather it’s work and home that need to be considered as parts of a whole life. In other words:

Time spent at work + time spent at home ≈ life

And I would say that it’s not about balance because that seems to presume that the two things can be equal, that we can keep them separate from each other. These days, I think it‘s about keeping your work in harmony with your home and vice versa, rather than at odds at two ends of a spectrum.

It’s not just work-life balance that’s out of wack, it’s the phrase itself

The COVID-19 crisis is shining a spotlight on both the pleasures and the pains of your office being in your home and, vice versa, having your home be your office. Understanding that the U.S. Department of Labor is currently reporting the number of unemployed as almost 18 million people (source); if you’re able to work from home, some might count you among the lucky.

True, your commute may only take a few minutes and you may only have to worry about wearing business appropriate top bits, but there are downsides as well — crowded households (not having childcare or in-person schooling for children, spouses, roommates, other family members), and male dominated video meetings. Some report feeling isolated and disconnected from their peers and their work while some talk about it being harder to collaborate remotely. Some folks who work from home have also reported they have had to keep longer hours to accomplish the same amount of work.

And not everyone will be able to work from home. In this, I’m talking about theater performers, store clerks, and doctors in a hospital or medical facility, to name a few. According to a paper published this year by Jonathan I. Dingel and Brent Neiman from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, it’s estimated that only “37% of of jobs in the United States can be performed entirely at home”. The same paper also reports that 85 other countries “have a lower share of jobs that can be done at home” (source).

Wait, you say. I thought a bunch of companies have announced plans to have their employees work from home until the end of the year. You’re right. Some number of employees at a few major technology companies will be working from home for the rest of the year. Here’s just a sampling:

  • Google: employees to remain remote until July 2021, a decision that will affect ~200,000 full-time and contract workers
  • Facebook: where as many as 50% of their employees could be working remotely within the next five to 10 years
  • Twitter/Square: where some of its workforce can continue working from home “forever”, if they choose
  • Shopify: CEO Tobi Lutke announced on Twitter that, “Office centricity is over. As of today, [we are a] digital by default company”
  • Slack: senior VP of people Robby Kwok said, “…Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose”
  • Zillow: CEO Rich Barton said, “My personal opinions about WFH have been turned upside down over the past 2 months”
  • Walmart: CTO Suresh Kumar said, “We believe the way of working in the future, particularly in tech, will be fundamentally different than it was before”

In May, CEO Aaron Levie wrote a statement on Box’s website:

Before the pandemic hit, ~15% of Box’s workforce already worked remotely, and this number will surely increase over time. At the same time, we know the power of having office hubs where in-person communities, mentorship, networking, and creativity can happen. We know different employees have a preference for different approaches. That is why our future is a hybrid one, capturing the best of both worlds, with a digital workplace stitching the physical office and virtual office all together.

And in June, CEO Adam D’Angelo cited a variety of pain points in Quora’s company statement on remote work including lengthy commute, ability to focus, the Bay Area housing crisis, and the visa and the immigration situation in the U.S.

And it’s not just working from home, some businesses are shutting down their physical office spaces — some permanently and some partially. Two examples: Nationwide Insurance is shutting down five regional offices with no plans to reopen as employees working from home have been able to meet business demands (source) and Groupon is subletting half of its Chicago HQ office space (source).

But will these work from home paradigms hold? A number of companies have rolled back efforts to work remotely in the past (read: non-COVID-19 times) — IBM, Aetna, Best Buy, Bank of America, AT&T, and Reddit have all publicly pulled back on telecommuting over the past two decades. In 2013, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer created a furor when she brought employees back into the office who previously worked from home. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings,” reads the memo to employees from HR head Jackie Reses.

So, will work be more like it was in a distant past? Or will the shape of work take a page from our recent past? Maybe something else altogether, some different beast in the future? Whichever way, something will have to shift and adjust — to mindlessly grind through work remotely previously done in-person or in an office isn’t the way. The medium must adapt to the message, not vice versa. Change is stressful, that’s true, and working through the tension can be a bear but stick with it.

Speak up, tell your coworkers what you think, think about what’s broken, talk to your managers, and we can work through this together.

Thanks for reading. And let me know what you think.

Credit for my awareness of this phrase “work-home balance” goes to Jaclyn Perrone, a design director at thoughtbot. She talks about this idea with Kyle Fieldler on episode 74 of the Tentative podcast, “Commute to the Basement”.

Design director at SoftServe, host of How This Works, coach with Plucky, advisor at Shep. Formerly at thoughtbot SF, Fjord NYC, and PBS FRONTLINE among others.

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