The office works. I don’t get the appeal of working from home
6th May 2023

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I quite like going to the office. I know you’ll think I’m weird. Working from home is the go, that’s the accepted wisdom. If you work in a business in which it’s possible to work from home, and your boss refuses to endorse it, you should move jobs and find a boss who will.

It’s easy to see the upsides. No commuting. No arguments over who will stack the communal dishwasher. No colleagues who leave their mobile phone on their desk when they go for coffee, with a ringtone set at the volume of a fire alarm.

On the other hand, humans are social people. We’re not built for isolation.

Home or the office? Meh, we all end up in the same place.Credit: iStock

In the past, working from home was a minority pursuit. In the ’80s and ’90s sitcom Roseanne, the main character had a job selling magazine subscriptions, using the phone in the kitchen, as the kids tumbled around her. No problem of feeling isolated there.

Farmers, it’s true, have always had solitary working lives: it’s why they often ring talk back radio from the cabin of the harvester. We love their calls. And I’ve known a few professionals – accountants mainly – who’ve had a home office for decades. Then again, they have a stream of clients filing in, handing over that shoebox full of receipts.

The main people who’ve always worked alone, at least in its purest form, are writers. No listening to the radio while they work; no clients banging on the door. Some might have the odd excursion to a publisher’s office, but for the most part their timetable is simple. They get up, go to a nearby room, and start typing – alone all day, every day, for years on end.

Whether it’s a PhD, a novel, a thumping tome of history, or a screenplay, it takes special people to do it. They need enormous self-discipline and self-belief. Many give up the undertaking, some go mad.

Sure, they can jump up and complete some domestic task and, given the mental strain of writing, I’m sure many do. It took Flaubert seven years to write Sentimental Education, but by the end his bathroom was spotless.

Such solitary labour is the only way literary work can be produced. So, writers have no choice. They settle down to what Dylan Thomas called their “craft or sullen art, exercised in the still night”. The same is true of other creative workers – painters, woodworkers, website designers, and the rest.

But why would the rest of us be so desperate to embrace what amounts to seclusion? Social isolation, after all, has been linked with every ailment from depression and anxiety to cognitive decline and shortened longevity.

I understand it’s not always that bad. If you are in an established team, on friendly terms, you can grab yourself a measure of camaraderie over the phone or Zoom. And if there’s something spiky to discuss – a piece of work that wasn’t up to scratch – your existing relationship may be robust enough to carry this extra freight, despite the perils of criticism delivered from a distance.

But how does that work in a year or two’s time, when the newly appointed staff have never, or rarely, met? How do you deliver a tiny “can do better” when it can’t be done casually, leaning over a desk, but has to be delivered in writing, or over a specially booked session on Zoom, and to a person you’ve hardly met?

And – here’s the tightwad in me talking – why should the worker, not the boss, suddenly be paying for the electricity, the paper and pens, used during a day working from home?

The shared office also helps generate ideas. Half the things I know are from overhearing a snatch of conversation, or from a casual chat that veered into the serious. A healthy office leaves you feeling buoyant, part of a joint enterprise, all pulling in the same direction. And when things go wrong, you have each other to share the gloom.

If you think about our evolutionary history, all this fits with the communal lives of our human ancestors. What doesn’t fit is the single person, alone in a house in the suburbs.

I also wonder about job security. I’ve heard of teams in which one person is in Brisbane, another in Perth and a third in rural New South Wales. They say it works fine, but what’s to stop management looking at the budget and deciding that two of those three might just as well be in India or the Philippines or any other country with lower labour costs?

Once you lose the advantages of people being physically together, the “off-shoring” of jobs becomes cost-cutter compelling.

Right now, the labour market is so tight that employees have the upper hand. If you want to work from Brisbane even though the company is in Sydney, you go right ahead. Ditto, if you want to work from home.

My prediction: all this will change, just as soon as unemployment creeps up. The boss will again have the upper hand and most office workers will be back in a central office, at least most of the time.

And by then, for some people at least, it might be a blessed relief.

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