There’s been loads of media this past twelve months about working from home (or the inexplicably sick-making acronym, WFH) and what it means for “the future of work.”
There’s so much of this material being generated and it’s always so wildly implausible or willing to commit to a specific vision of the future that I don’t usually bother mentioning it here even when I see it.
This piece in the Guardian isn’t half bad though. It recognises the usual challenges and benefits of working from home but alights on a sensible middle-ground:
[a senior investment banker says her] ideal scenario would be to meet her team of six just once a month in the office, and she would not be afraid to challenge bosses if they asked for more. “Why would we need to do that,” she said, “with everything that we’ve proved over the past year in terms of how we’re able to conduct our business, and do it much quicker?”
More than half (53%) of workers said they would prefer a hybrid model in future, splitting their time equally between their desk and a remote location.
I see this as one of the big answers for making white-collar workplaces less appalling. Why not have a small office with a meeting room and a couple of quiet work booths for when people really do need to get together or to get away from home, and just let everyone else work from home (or wherever else they like) the rest of the time. Coordinate things with a simple remote booking system.
If it’s too expensive to maintain a workplace that could be empty of staff most of the time, bin the whole idea and just rent a meeting room or a co-working space once a month. God knows there’s enough such places popping up.
Under such halfway measures, there could be a rule about replying to flagged-as-urgent email relatively quickly when you’re on the clock and a sort of “General Order 1” about delivering your projects on time regardless of your location or circumstances.
Companies should hire people they believe can work unsupervised and then trust them to do so. “The ability to work unsupervised” has been a criterion of practically every “job spec” I’ve seen, but in practice it rarely comes up as an applicable skill.
This is probably the rub. The thrill of “supervision” is just irresistible to sadist managers (and maybe a few masochist workers too). And obviously it suits paranoid employers perfectly well to have a team under the heel of their expensively hired dungeon guards. Supervision clearly stands in the way of a more humane future workplace.
A reader emailed me last month to say that he has not enjoyed WFH precisely because his company won’t trust him and have taken to supervising his paper-shuffling efforts through remote surveillance technologies in a way that they never did when he had an office to go to.
For the sake of the environment, our health, and common sense, the future workplace needs to be the compromise described by the Guardian article. If workplaces can’t square this circle, intelligent, potentially-useful people will just have to carry on escaping them.
Friend Henry is on a crusade to escape all things digital. Not just social media, but the whole shebang.
He’s deleted his blog and his profiles on Amazon, Patreon and Mailchimp. He’s even talking about scrapping his email account. “I think it will make me happier,” he says in a final BCC, “and I believe these technologies do more harm than good in the long run.”
I think he’s probably right on both counts. I took a note of his real-world address and vowed to write to him the old-fashioned way. Unfortunately, this was about a month ago and I am yet to put pencil to paper.
There’s something slightly daunting about writing a letter–a fear of doing something “wrong” by messing up a nice sheet of paper–and, if I’m completely honest with myself, something unreal about it too.
And there’s the Digital Fascism in a nutshell: the idea that if something’s not online and administered by Silicon Valley then it’s not real, which is the opposite of the truth. How utterly pathetic. They’ve done a real number on us. If even I find myself thinking this way (a person who resisted smart phones for a decade and still refuses to read e-books) then the problem must be very widespread indeed.
What is to stop us from escaping this over-reliance on (or addiction to) digital technologies and returning full-time to offline pleasures like real letters? I have some thoughts:
1. The sunk cost fallacy. The idea that you’ve invested in a system makes a person reluctant to abandon that system even if it clearly isn’t working. And we’ve invested in the digital system big-time, socially and individually. We’ve moved gradually from paper and cassettes and discs into an immaterial networked world: it took ages, lots of learning, lots of head-scratching, and decades of spending on fabulous equipment. Going back to the old ways doesn’t feel profitable now even if it were logically proved as such.
2. The network effect. There are certain people who will never write to you on paper and you’ll lose touch with them forever. Some people won’t even use anything other than their favourite app to communicate. I know someone so in thrall to WhatsApp that he won’t even send text messages any more. And there were certainly one or two people I lost touch with when I killed my Facebook account it’s not in their nature to write an email. It’s a shame to lose touch with these slaves to particular technologies but the alternative is to be slave to those technologies yourself. What a sad state of affairs.
3. Too much to throw away. Many digital technologies are easy to quit because they’re rubbish or because you fall outside their demographic catchment area (i.e. you feel too young for Facebook or too old for TikTok) but sometimes they’re so perfect that you’d experience genuine loss if you left them. For me, it’s Gmail. I have a proper email address at newescapologist.co.uk and the web mail interface that comes with the hosting service is fine, but the 15GB offered by Gmail is unbeatable and I have twelve years of searchable information stored in it. It’s become almost a substitute brain for me and I run countless searches of my Gmail account every day in search of facts, links, promises, log-in details, turns of phrase, half-forgotten nuggets. It’s too darn useful to quit. But one day, I fancy, I will.
The sensible thing is probably to half-escape the digital world, one foot in cyberspace and one on terra firma. Keep what you find useful, ditch what you can. As I’ve said before, the Internet is not the problem but rather “Web 2.0.” Be a digital minimalist.
This said, “half-escape” is what precisely what I’ve done and, as you can see, there is really no such thing. I clearly struggle to write a letter so perhaps my extremist friend is onto something. In any event, his is a noble experiment. I’ll write to him now, I think, and find out how he’s spending his time. I’ll report back to you if he allows it.
Hey, look an escape!
One early evening after supper in December 2016, the winter sun throwing parallelograms of light across the prison yard, he made a run for it. Russell was a star high-school sprinter. At 6 ft 2 in (188 cm), he easily scrambled up the nine-foot fence, and in a single bound, cleared three rounds of barbed wire and landed on the other side of the wall.
It was Christmas morning when he was captured and returned to prison, with an extra year tacked on to his sentence.
This guy, Andrew Russell, physically escaped a prison called the Work Ethic Camp.
He’d been arrested for drug dealing (after finding no solution to poverty in low-paid work) and remanded to this prison. The prison’s wacky programme was to teach inmates the inherent value of work through barely-paid 30-40 hour work weeks. Needless to say, it turned out to be boring, insulting, and useless.
The story is told by Sam Haselby in Aeon magazine as part of a broader investigation into the work ethic in America and where it comes from.
The work ethic […] is a form of resignation, a product of defeat.
Attributing our exceptional work hours to an ideology woefully mistakes cause for effect. Ideology isn’t the driver of our lived experiences, but the product of them. Our ideological commitment to work is the result of incessant and repeated activity – literally doing our jobs day in and day out. And there’s nothing we do with as much regularity, intensity and unquestioned submission as work. We rationalise our quotidian experiences by shaping belief systems to accommodate them, not the other way around.
Thanks to Reader A for directing us to this. It’s a really good piece of journalism and certainly worth your time.
Ah, yes. Readers have reminded me that And Maggie Makes Three is a prequel episode in which Homer does in fact briefly quit his job.
He quits by riding Mr Burns through the nuclear plant while playing his head like a bongo drum. This comes after clearing his debts and lining up a low-stress dream job, so he has a decent enough escape plan too. Hooray for Homer!
Alas, all does not go to plan. When he returns to Sector 7G, tail between his legs, he’s confronted by this:
YouTube is bursting with neat little pop-cultural essays, isn’t it?
I just watched a good one about Frank Grimes of The Simpsons and “the cult of work.” It explains how the capitalist workplace pits worker against worker while positioning wealthy employers as the savior.
It also points out that the conservative’s routine answer to poverty is “work harder” and, when that fails, well, hard work is good in its own right so at least you can be virtuous as well as tired.
Obviously, we’re far more like Homer* than Grimes here at New Escapologist. We have long advocated for the opposite of Grimey’s values. We say that that hard work isn’t inherently or morally valuable and that hard work evidently isn’t the answer when you consider how the rich got rich and stayed there. “Nobody earns a billion dollars,” says the essay over pictures of Mr. Burns, “they steal it from the labour of those who have no choice but to take low-wage jobs in a system that previous billionaires maintained for new billionaires.”
(*though in a key way we are not like Homer. Homer continues to work, albeit ineffectively, and reaping the consumerist “rewards” of wage slavery instead of coming up with a coherent escape plan. He does try to escape in some episodes though, doesn’t he? I might be misremembering, but in the one about Maggie’s birth, his dream was to quit the nuclear plant and work in a bowling alley; he seemed to have been maneuvering himself into this position through some sort of plan before it was scuppered.)
Check it out. If you don’t care about the exploitation of billions of people for a wealthy few, it’s still just nice to think about the golden age of Simpsons. For all the flaws of the libertarian writer’s worldview, Frank Grimes’ funeral is still a great comedy moment. “Frank Grimes… or Grimey as he liked to be called.” Ahaha.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find out if Odo on Deep Space Nine was a fascist collaborator.
That feeling of deep satisfaction at the end of a working day is rare for many workers across the world. We are alienated, and have been for centuries. We have to work in order to survive, but while we are told to love what we do and that our workplaces are our families, meaningful work that also pays the bills is harder and harder to come by.
This is a great essay from Vice magazine. Thanks to Reader V for drawing our attention to it.
The essay points out that the way we work in this century isn’t natural or historically normal. It goes on to ruminate on what, post-pandemic, will happen next.
What kind of change the pandemic brings is still up for debate. Joe Biden and the British government are both fond of the slogan “Build back better”, which appeals to politicians because it could mean absolutely anything. If you’re Boris Johnson, you might think that “building back better” means handing billions of pounds of public money to companies connected to the Conservative Party. Historical advances made by workers, including the creation of the weekend and shorter working days, were all hard won. There is no guarantee the pandemic will make anything easier.
For twelve months now, I’ve taken special care over how I present my escape message. When all is said and done, “Take this job and shove it” isn’t a very useful phrase at the moment.
As much as anything, most office workers are working from home, which is at least 50% less horrific and depressing than toiling in an open-plan office. It’s even one of the halfway houses of liberty I explore in Escape Everything! and The Good Life for Wage Slaves.
I daresay it’s still fairly rotten to use Zoom or Skype so much and to worry about what your manager will make of your pajamas, but at least the commute is a thing of the past along with the noisy and tedious Hell of actual office life. I’m almost (but not quite) envious of people who get a healthy monthly salary on those terms. It might be worth holding in the words “I quit” for a little while longer, taking the money and pretending that your WiFi is on the blink.
There’s also a sense of public reckoning unfolding, concerning which jobs are the important ones. Anyone who was ever in denial over how food provision and care work are the valuable contributions while the white-collar professions are meaningless or actively malign must surely be coming to terms with reality now. We need those health workers and grocery store clerks and shelf stackers now more than ever. Encouraging them to utter the magic words, “I’m throwing in the towel!”, might still be in their interest but it’s not in that of the common good. I’ve even thought about applying for a job at my local Sainsbury’s, so profound is the feeling of wanting to help out. (Naturally, I haven’t done that. I’m better suited as a foot soldier in the war against Pina Coladas.)
There’s also an idea that to have a job is actually rather lucky when so many companies are going bust and financial assistance for the unemployed is still pretty crap. I wouldn’t see myself as lucky to have a stinking jay-oh-bee even in those circumstances, but I would not want to overstate the “all work sucks” message to people who want to work but currently cannot.
No. Better instead to weather the storm. Let’s use these lockdowns as an opportunity to regroup. With everything being shut, it’s never been easier to save money for an escape fund. We’ve never had more time to take stock and come to terms with what’s really important. Conduct the “life audit” I recommend in my books as the first preparatory step towards escape. Make plans. Collect the right tools. Minimise and downsize. Develop resilience. Spend time with your imagination, drawing up plans for how you want to live when this is all over.
Escape Everything! was recently republished under the title, I’m Out: How to Make an Exit. I don’t personally care for the title change, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the sudden availability (and unprecedented cheapness) of the book here. Get it NOW to help with your lockdown escape planning. It’s available at Blackwell’s and in all the usual bookish places.
Friend S writes to respond to my sentiment that “even if your job is to eat chocolates or watch sexy films, forty hours a week for forty years of your life is a breathtaking commitment.”
Checking in as someone whose job essentially is to watch sexy films: CORRECT! The bloom goes off the rose rather quickly when you have a boss checking up to make sure you’re watching enough sexy films every week. (Also, in my considered opinion, nobody should be watching sexy films seven hours a day, five days a week.) There’s a reason I call my job “the Porn Mines” and not “The Dream”.
I’d forgotten that S’s job is in fact to watch sexy videos. She’s an office-based copywriter and some sort of content screener in what you might call the erotic industrial complex. I don’t think I was thinking of her when I wrote that; I was probably just looking for something that would be universally seen as privately enjoyable and not very work-like. But here we are. Everything is jobbable and therefore contains the potential to be a grind. See also: just because you like cakes doesn’t mean you’d enjoy running a bakery.
I’m reading a compendium of nature writing by Kathleen Jamie. In a chapter of reminisces about her life in the 1970s, she writes of dropping out to work on archaeological digs with the oddballs and stoners:
The exams had been no triumph; if I’d thought about trying for university, which was not an easy process anyway, without a knowledgeable family or supportive teachers the idea was dashed anyway.
But you could sign on the dole. You could hide among the swelling numbers of genuinely unemployed, and claim a little money every week. That’s what people did: artists, diggers, mountaineers, would-be poets and musicians, anarchists and feminists. Anyone for whom the threat of a job, of conformity, felt like death.
The dole doesn’t exist in the way it did in the 1970s. We have Jobseeker’s Allowance now and Universal Credit. Doom, doom, doom. I don’t say we should bring back the dole exactly (though it would certainly be a positive step back to a happier time) but that Universal Basic Income be brought in to give the opportunity of quiet freedom to everyone who wants it. (And if you don’t want it and would prefer to work hard for loads of money, a progressive tax system would slurp your share of UBI away so you wouldn’t have to worry about it.)
Kathleen Jamie used her time on the dole (and by the way, we more commonly call it “the brew” in Scotland) to attend those archaeological digs, to experience the world a little, to meet new people, to sense the depths beneath the feet.
As well as being a well-earned break after years of unasked-for schooling, the dole could evidently be a useful airlock between life chapters in which to marshal one’s thoughts instead of foolhardily hurtling into the next thing. It grants the sort of space that is useful to anyone but essential to future writers and musicians and thinkers, people who might make a contribution greater than the gains of typical white-collar servitude.
UBI now please. Or if that’s not affordable, bring back the old-fashioned dole. If it was affordable in the 1970s, it should be affordable in the age of the iPhone.
In Escape Everything! I’m pretty sure I say something along the lines of “even if your job is to eat chocolates or to watch sexy films, forty hours a week for forty years of your life is a breathtaking commitment.” Excuse me while I misquote myself, but the gist is: “so much for the dream job.”
As soon as something becomes a job and has to be done under supervision or on someone else’s schedule or in an itchy uniform, it has the potential to become a bit of a bind.
Reader Tim draws our attention today to an article by Clio Chang that explores the “dream job” problem very well.
The concept of the dream job still persists, likely because so many of us are working in what the late David Graeber called “bullshit jobs,” or are simply not employed at all. Finding your dream job is a seductive idea: the do-gooder, Protestant version of the FIRE movement—rather than trying to escape work, why not try loving it instead?
I like that the FIRE movement is specifically excluded from the Protestant Work Ethic here! It is hard sometimes to convince people that all the bean counting and self-education is actually in service to sticking it to the man and living well!
The article points out that the whole idea of the dream job is open to abuse, and might even be why it prevails. American park rangers, for example, don’t get paid well and aren’t given the year-round private health insurance that Americans tend to get through their employers:
A common mantra among park rangers is, “You get paid in sunrises and sunsets.” The implication is that if you’re working your dream, you’ll take any conditions that come with it.
It looks like a trade-off, doesn’t it? Depressed office workers are compensated for the lack of stunning vistas with a decent paycheque while park rangers get the open skies but hopeless precarity. But this is where my angry Socialist side comes out: it’s a wholly artificial, manufactured trade-off. It doesn’t have to be like this and there’s enough resource in the world for everyone to have sensible hours (allowing for vistas) and sensible pay (allowing for safety). And as for nudging everyone into bullshit jobs, does anyone really think there aren’t enough genuinely useful tasks in the world to occupy us usefully? Just look out the window.