In my first year at university, I was a naive idiot in a ton of ways.
One dumb thing I did was take the bus to school. Everything about it sucked: it cost money, the buses were loud and high-pitched, they were always packed, you never knew exactly when they were going to come, sometimes they were so full you’d have to wait for the next one, and because of all the waiting and the stops, even though I was actually only a ten minute drive from campus, the whole operation took at least half an hour every time.
But I never thought about any of it, because I was a naive idiot, and taking the bus was just the way things worked.
Then, at the beginning of my second year, something amazing happened: the city workers went on strike.
In addition to many other disruptions of city services, this meant the buses no longer ran.
So, I started to walk to school.
(I should note here that at the time I was privileged to be able to walk long distances without any trouble, and things were very different for people without those privileges, who had a basic need for public transportation.)
It was a revelation. For one thing, drivers started picking up students walking to school and giving them free rides, giving the lie, incidentally, to the presumption that nowadays we live in a uniquely individualistic society, where nobody helps each other.
But the best thing was, I realized that I actually had options for how to take care of this important and time-consuming part of my life, and that walking to school was way better than taking the stupid bus.
First, the predictability mattered to me. There was no more uncertainty and waiting, and no more being late for reasons that weren’t my own fault. The moment I was out the door, I knew exactly how long it would take me to get to class, every time.
Second, there was no more awful bus noise and crowding, just fresh air and healthy exercise.
Third, walking didn’t cost any money. I wasn’t broke-broke, but I was lower-middle-class-student-broke, and saving thirty bucks a month actually made a difference to my day-to-day life, and sense of financial safety.
Another revelation was that it only took 45 minutes to walk the distance it took 30 minutes to cover by bus. This is a much more common phenomenon than people often think.
Which reminds me, another great thing about it was, I could think during those 45 minutes, which I could not do with all the uncertainty and crowd-packing and starting and stopping and jostling and sonic assault that taking the bus inflicted on me, and everyone else thoughtless enough to take it, when they didn’t have to.
I never took the bus again.
I began thinking about this experience the other day, when I started seeing stories about all the problems with working from home.
If you’re looking for some thoughtless repetition of received clichés, or knee-jerk endorsements of the status quo for its own sake, these are the stories for you.
Working from home means you’re lazy? Check. Working from home means you can’t stop working all the time? You betcha. Having a bad tech setup (hello Webex) reflects some underlying problem with tech that generally makes working from home worse than the office? Yup. Oh, and of course working from home inevitably means being a schlub sitting around in sweatpants or pyjamas, which is a problem because we all know putting on office clothes makes you a bigly winner? Uh-huh.
And what’s with the crazy fascination with working from home, and eating snacks?
The reality is that most people who are working from home right now - and the legions more who might join them in the coming days - are going to experience the same kind of revelation I did, when the buses stopped.
Working from the office is weird and it sucks. First of all, let’s talk more about clothes. This is something you have to think about and will be judged upon, unpredictably and arbitrarily. And this dumb situation is famously far worse for women than it is for men, because maybe, just maybe, the notionally professional workplace is not the inherently rational and practical space we so often pretend it is, even though we all know better.
Second, you have to commute. Commuting is an absolutely awful thing to do, and our acceptance of it is a measure of an unfortunate but fundamental human tendency towards thoughtless apathy and quiescence.
Commuting costs money; there’s uncertainty and crowding; you can get randomly stuck in traffic or in tunnels (hello Northern Line); the struggle and press and sweat is stressful and gross; routes can get delayed or cancelled, which actually happens all the time; and if you’re driving, you get all the problems that come from that, including a very real, everyday exposure to the risk of injury or death, pollution, variable fuel prices if you’re driving a fuel vehicle, and the awful gas-brake-honk, gas-brake-honk stress inherent to driving.
But the absolute worst thing about commuting is not the risks and uncertainties and effort and money, and being pressed up against sweaty strangers, or having them press themselves up against you (well, actually that last one might be the worst): it’s the insane waste of time.
This problem is actually deeper than just a matter of wasted time, though that is a huge problem. Sometimes you actually don’t have time to commute, and do your job like it really should be done.
I once worked in a very intense and competitive sector where basically every second mattered, and commuting took essential time away from my team’s efforts.
A corollary of this is if you have all kinds of non-employer obligations in your life - to your nuclear family if you’re part of one, to organizations where you volunteer, if you’re into that - where wasting time commuting actually has a negative impact on your ability to do the non-employer things you need to do, which incidentally are often forms of work, just as much as the stuff you do for your employer is work. (To put it another way, we’ve always been working from home.)
But the commute is just the beginning and the end of wasted time when you “work from office”. The middle is all the time-wasting that is inherent to working in an office in itself.
Just to be clear, socializing at the office is not wasted time, despite the firm convictions of the class of interfering manager who treats all work like it’s taking place on an abusive assembly line, and workers like they’re infinitely replaceable and interchangeable.
Some people just love being around other people some or even most of the time when they’re working, and all kinds of connections and serendipity can come from being around other people in a shared physical space. This is great - as long as working around other people in that space is everyone’s choice, which is the difference between, say, a co-working space, and the category of space we conventionally call an office.
The wasted time when you work from the office comes from a number of directions - the bureaucracy, the forced conventions of interpersonal office behaviour, and of course unnecessary meetings and interruptions, amongst many other things.
When huge masses of people are forced to work from home - like, say, almost all of Denmark’s public employees - they will soon learn what it’s like, in the same amount of time it normally took you to get up, shower, get dressed, and get to work, to get more work done at home, than you normally would have managed to get done at the office, in maybe even an entire day.
Over a short period of time, with everyone simultaneously facing the challenges of the transition from office to home work, huge numbers of people will realize that one reason they hated Mondays was because of all the stress, and just the sheer annoyance, after a weekend spent at home, of trying to get to work on time when so much is totally out of your control, and hazarding all that traffic and those noisy and dangerous buses and trains and crosswalks, and whatever, and then facing the prospect of being in that weird office all day, where people might be watching your every move.
When all these people who get used to working from home are eventually told to return to working at the office, the whole thing will finally be revealed to all of us for the inefficient, horrible practice it almost always is.
Productivity and morale will decrease dramatically, with everybody sitting there in the office, looking around at each other, and thinking the same thought: all of this is so weird and dumb and has nothing to do with our actual work.
This is not to say that all offices are going to disappear, of course. Gathering in person will still be important some of the time, no matter what industry you’re in, and in some industries, it is essential.
But in the coming months, the effectively unexamined, nearly universal convention that going to the office is a necessary condition for doing hard work and serious business, is going to be revealed for the crazy sham it has been for the last ten years or so, when technology made working from home, for nearly all jobs that can be at a desk, the obvious way go.