Let me start by saying that if you work from home, and it’s working out for you… great! Fantastic! I’m genuinely – very seriously – happy for you.
But since many of y’all seem to have lost the capacity to put yourselves in other people’s shoes, and understand that not every experience is as yours happens to be, without having it spelled out to you like you’re a fucking five year old, I guess it’s time we have some words on this.
Not everyone is able to work from home, like grocery workers and delivery drivers. I’m sure we all understood all of that, all along. But there’s another group in the mix here too: those for whom working at home is not ideal.
There’s been a growing debate floating around social media and my Google News notifications feed lately: whether or not employees want to continue to work from home, go hybrid, or return to the office. Some people claim that everyone is clamoring to get back to the office, and for some that is definitely a reality. I know a few who simply find sitting at home over Zoom quite lonely. Others say they crave the productivity of an office environment, or – at least a few people I know – have a much nicer view from their city-based office window than their suburban dining room window. A change of scenery is what they need to feel successful.
Then there is the other side, who has saved time and money on commute, being able to integrate more quality into their own personal time (since they don’t spend as much time in traffic). Others have found that by blurring the lines of work and home, they are able to actually accomplish more via the flexibility that working from home allows for. And, in fact, studies have shown that working from home increases productivity about 13%. Why? A generally quieter environment with less water cooler conversation interruptions, fewer breaks, and a vast reduction in sick days.
Of course, for every study there is a counter, and recently Time released an article with a very expansive analysis of both the benefits and challenges the ongoing work from home environment creates. While workers are generally more productive, the team environment is all-but-lost, and employers find themselves with higher turnover rates, and even some with a damaged corporate brand. The response to this article that I saw on social media was, effectively: outrage. A lot of advocates for a permanent work from home environment argued that this debate is actually non-existent. That working from home is what everyone loves, and the newer counter-points to the original studies about the positives of working from home were Time and other media outlets simply acting as corporate shills, weaving their bullshit enslavement narrative into the media.
I get both sides of this. I really do – people experience things differently, and come from different walks of life. Different circumstances, different homes, different relationships, and different types of jobs. You can too, even if that isn’t the way it is for you personally. Some people need that separation of work and home physically to maintain that mental boundary; some thrive on working from home. Everyone is different. I have seen a lot of debate and discussion about this, and while we can present some facts to the case, I’m not sure we can really encapsulate the entirety of it without considering the nuance of the household. What I haven’t seen yet is much acknowledgment or discussion about the impact working from home has on the worker’s household, and whether or not long term working from home is tenable in situations where it is not ideal. We all saw the hilarious meme where the guy was being interviewed on live television only for his kids to toddle into the background. That was cute, but it was just a preview or tip to the iceberg of the insurmountable burden that working from home has presented for a lot of people.
I wish our situation at my own home was that cute.
We have six people living in our home. My father, who is 78 and retired. My husband and myself, and our three kids. Our house is relatively small, with thin walls, and a vaulted ceiling that echoes even a pin drop. No dining room or extra bonus room that can be converted to an office. Those of you that have been around a while know I have two teenage girls (17 and 13) and one toddler boy (4). When my husband came home for a temporary “two weeks to slow the spread,” his work set up forced both myself and my four year old to bunk with my teenagers, because not only did the master bedroom become his office, but he works at night. It was fun at first, right? Like a camp out. But as the situation became more than just temporary – something I am still routinely assured is the status of this working scenario … temporary … – the fun began to unravel. We’ve now found ourselves 19 months in, and feeling a bit frayed around the edges.
Work From Home Does Not Work If You Have Heightened Technical Requirements
My husband works in film, specifically editing trailers and other promotional materials. Our technical requirements are ridiculous: we’ve had to pay more to upgrade the Internet, even more to purchase a better router so that others in the home could have access to WiFi when he’s working over the wired connection. Before we purchased this higher capacity router, I had to drop a course I was taking because I kept losing my wireless connection during exams. Finally, when it happened in another class, I said we just had to spend the extra money – 19 months in avoiding my own goals had become a bit much.
Because of the way our house was built, and the cable and Internet installed, the main control box for the Internet is in my dad’s room – upstairs. So for 19 months we’ve had ethernet cabling trailing out of my father’s bedroom, through the hall, down the stairs, across another hall, and into the bedroom where my husband works. At the beginning of the pandemic, my father tripped on the stairs, falling so severely that we ended up calling 9-1-1, learning later he had fractured his shoulder. While this wasn’t a result of the cabling down the stairs, every time I look at it, it seems only a matter of time before the wire has come off the wall, or out from under the rug in the hall (both happen often), no one notices, and my dad falls again.
Sometime around the beginning of this summer, I noticed that when my husband is working, the lights through the entire house flicker. We called an electrician and he couldn’t figure out the problem, but broke one of our two mobile air conditioning units in the process of replacing the breaker “just in case.” Still, every night my husband is working, the lights flicker and flash with no explanation. Our electric bill has also increased over 26% per month over the last year and a half since he came to work from home. Further, our water bill is up 18%, food and house supplies bills are up as well (though this is difficult to calculate exactly in terms of how much).
And, as it turns out, we aren’t alone. That doesn’t make it okay, and is the first of several points that refute the claim that Corporate America is slashing their whips, trying to get their slaves back into the centralized cubicle. Why would they when they can pass the proverbial buck onto employees in droves?
Work From Home Does Not Work If You Have Weird Hours And Children
My husband, like many others in the film industry, works the night shift. His shift begins at 6:00 pm and ends whenever he finishes his work for the night. Sometimes that’s 2 in the morning, other times we get up for the day around 8 or 9 and he’s still working. He wears headphones, but there are still frequent times when we can hear noises. When it’s busy at work, it’s nightly. Sometimes it’s the headphones coming off and him checking something with the sound over speakers. Other times it’s a conference call at midnight, in our older house with thin walls. Most of the time, I don’t know what it is because it’s happening right before we wake up, but certainly we aren’t imagining it.
I’ve tried everything, to no avail. I put up sound proofing foam, especially along the wall that is shared with the room we sleep in. This provided minimal impact (so, more expense to us with negligible results). I’ve bought a sound machine that plays rain water (more expense, didn’t work anyway). One night, we set up my daughter’s camcorder in the hallway to try and really narrow down what the noise was, and we did hear him come out for a snack; so I set up a miniature break room with a mini fridge, coffee maker and snacks… in the master closet. Shortly before this, I had moved all of my clothes upstairs anyway, because it was just more convenient (though pretty pathetic – I now live out of bins stored under the beds of my teenage daughters’ bedroom). Still, sounds are frequently heard, and the energy of a post-production editing bay is pervasive through out the house most nights.
If you’re single or have no or grown kids, this is a non-issue. My teenagers can sleep through just about anything, most nights of the week (we’ll get to that in a minute). But my 4 year old is another story: he’s easily woken, difficult to go to bed, and – to be blunt – this has been a nightly trip to hell on Earth just to get a full night’s sleep. For 19 months now.
To get him to go to sleep, we have to take him on a nightly car ride and then carry him up to bed. When this was only supposed to be for a few weeks, back in early 2020, he and I slept on a twin mattress on the floor in my daughters’ bedroom. As the pandemic wore on though, I got the mattress off the floor, and now we have something along the lines of one of those cute family bed deals you see on Pinterest all the time. It works, for now; though my teenage daughters have to share a Queen sized bed, while I share a bed with a child that is about to turn five, who tosses, turns, and wakes very easily.
Inevitably, every night, there is a noise somewhere in the house that he hears and he wakes up from, and most nights he runs to my dad’s bedroom, normally going back to sleep immediately. As I said, thin walls and vaulted ceilings – sometimes you can’t even stand up in one room of the house without everyone else hearing your chair squeak. This would be fine, if it didn’t occasionally wake up one of my other two daughters, or myself, too. Once I’m awake, it is very difficult for me to go back to sleep. Once my 17 year old is awake, she’ll toss and turn for the rest of the night and then not feel well the next day. My 13 year old doesn’t generally have a hard time going back to sleep, but when she is woken it’s with a flare of drama.
The other night was one of those nights, with the flare of drama and me being up for most of the night, and everyone else being disrupted so much that everyone just felt like shit the next day.
My four year old was in bed and asleep after “car ride time,” my daughters and I finished watching the movie we were watching, and we all went up around midnight. Around 1, I had just fallen asleep when I heard a noise through the shared wall. It wasn’t too loud, but it was enough to wake me up (like I said, I’m a light sleeper). So I turned on the television, muted with the subtitles on, and was watching, my toddler now with his feet wedged into my back anyway, when around 2 there was a much louder noise from somewhere in the house and this one was loud enough to startle my 13 year old. She was sleeping on the side of the bed she and her sister share that was close enough to me, and in her brief moment of half-asleep-half-awake, she lurched her hand in my general direction, effectively knocking my glass of milk off the small table that is set up between the two beds, into me and my toddler. I got up to change and put down towels, only for my toddler to be woken by the commotion. Because the TV was on, though, I flipped it to Storybots, and he laid there watching it instead of running to my dad’s room. Somewhere around 6 in the morning – the house now quiet – my toddler was still awake, and I dozed off (surprisingly) only to wake up a few minutes later to find he had left the room. I thought he must be in my dad’s room, which he was. But because it was now light out, and the night had been a total shit show, he was wide awake, sitting on the floor of my dad’s room – my dad still sleeping – drinking a can of Diet Coke he got from my dad’s bedside table.
A long time ago, a friend of mine that runs her own therapy practice told me that kids can feel the energy in the house. If you’re stressed, they feel it. If you’re happy, they feel it. If you work in a night job that is in a fast paced environment with unpredictable hours, a lot of technical hubbub, vacillating periods of no noise juxtaposed against a lot of noise, and high levels of stress, and the like… the kids feel it.
This is why I think it’s so unbelievable and selfish when people expect us to just carry on as we normally would before the pandemic – do all the things, and then some. They make flippant comments like “oh, well at least he doesn’t have to commute,” like that makes the fact that my children have not all had a full night’s sleep for more than two nights in a row for 19 months now any better. At what expense exactly are we to accept this scenario? When one of us gets hurt, or worse? At the expense of the children having the quiet and calm and well-rested environment in which children need to learn? To do homework? To thrive?
People have offered an array of suggestions, none of which are really tenable for a lot of people. Rent office space somewhere else? More expense. Use a family member’s home? Passing the buck onto them. Move to a bigger house? … in this market?!! No matter how you slice it, it’s just not feasible… for us or other families. Dare I say: most families.
The short answer of it all is really that the solution for some – dare I suggest many – workers is actually simple: get back to the office. Sure, the commute sucks, the employer has to pay the utility bills, and there will be some extra measures needed to make it happen (like vaccine mandates, testing requirements, sick pay for workers to stay home when ill, and so on)… but families won’t fracture and experience hardship and trauma like they are. Children in situations like ours will not have to continue to bear the burden of this pandemic.
We had a shred of hope towards the beginning of the summer when those dreaded words came over my husband’s email… when his office finally responded to his and other inquiries about just when the fuck they would all be allowed back to the office: “Due to the Delta variant, our return to the office has been postponed …”
If you have not been vaccinated or are not wearing a mask out in the community, please consider how these variants you are producing is impacting families like ours. Working from home does not work for everyone, and it will not work forever. There will come a point when the dam breaks, and for our own situation I hope that I can hold out long enough to avoid that happening. Your personal choices on this don’t just impact others with COVID, but all its effect.
If working from home is working for you, that. is. AWESOME. If it is not, know there are many of us still living this pandemic struggle in the worst of ways. If there’s anything I’ve learned through this last 19 months, it’s that everyone’s situations are different. Different situation, different results. Before claiming that working from home is perfect for everyone, try to remember that.