Working from home (WFH): dream or nightmare?

The routine of a stable work schedule, even a much-dreaded commute, sounds good to many of us now…

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

For better or worse, more of us are working from home (or remotely) than ever before.

Some are transitioning back to the office or other physical presence.

To put it mildly, both transitions have been awkward and clumsy.

Many of us were basically ejected from our routines – from commuting to informal chit-chat around the workplace to office snacks or drinks.

And, of course, work expectations.

For many of us – with some distinct exceptions – working remotely is, logistically at least, relatively simple.

It has little to nothing to do with work being “essential” or even “essential to be monitored” (just another example of how our work-related vocabulary is not even beginning to keep up).

Some of us, of course, have dreamed of working at home for years; avoiding that dreadful commute, that relentless non-negotiable work schedule, petty office politics and gossip – just focusing on our tasks at hand – what could be better?

It turns out that many of us, in spite of our many protestations, actually like that commute, that structure, even the passing and forgettable office conversations.

Working from home might be many things – but structured is not one of them.

Most of us were just ejected from the standard workplace without much warning or preparation.

As with everything, it seems, in 2020 there was a rush for office supplies from desks to laptops.

The WFH movement shifted real estate markets and traffic patterns.

It also shifted how we think about work, trust, productivity and those we work with.

Are those people doing what they are supposed to be doing?

As you might expect, all kinds of monitoring projects and formulas were put into place – some intrusive, many disruptive and most of them insulting.

Some of us, instead of commuting, work far longer or, as in my case, instead of spending my energy getting dressed, rushing to work and spending my first energies of the morning on preparation or commuting, get directly to work and, do vastly more, with more focus and energy than was possible in a standard office setting.

Here’s another dynamic I discovered. This is true of most of my positions, but I only had the luxury of perspective lately – for the first hour or two, my job is fun, borderline exhilarating and creative. The second hour or two is tolerable and still semi-productive. The fifth or sixth hour – and definitely those beyond – quickly approach dreadful and brain-numbing.

In my case at least, I am certain that I am vastly more productive by working at home – I am far more focused and, when I hit that three to four hour numbing point, I just stop. Maybe for the day, possibly for a nap, perhaps for lunch.

But no matter what I do, I don’t blandly sludge through the last part of the work day.

I do what I consider my best and stop when I run out of steam.

It seems to me that this, when possible, would be optimal for everyone concerned.

Many European nations and tech companies are discovering that a shorter work day leads to far more worker satisfaction, less employer turnover and increased productivity.

This is not, and could never be, true of, or possible for, all of us, or every occupation, of course.

Mix in kids, pets, partners, health issues and a million other factors and you have an ideal recipe for distrust, deception and viral-newsworthy embarrassing (and potentially career-ending) Zoom disasters.

The ultimate irony is that we are in this strange business/work/commuting inverting/transformative experience together even as we are not at all “together”.

We are all making do – with work, office supplies, kids, work schedules, errant pets and a hundred more variables we never imagined would be impinging on our work lives.

Steady work schedules? Gone.

Frustrating, yet somehow reassuring, commutes? Evaporated.

Separation between work and private life – perhaps mythologized as work/life balance? Gone forever – probably.

Standard career track or even retirement? Probably not on the horizon for most, if not all, of us.

Whatever the rest of the 2020s look like, they won’t look like the work (or vacation or home) life most of imagined, or even thought would be relatively straight-forward just a year or so ago.

All bets are off; work, money, privacy, job security and predictable career tracks are nothing like they once were.

With “stimulus checks” mysteriously arriving in our bank accounts, work schedules oozing into what had been our private home lives, and the ever-present Zoom-meeting, the once taken-for-granted distinction between home and work and the once-firm connection between work and pay seem like nostalgic relics from a long-forgotten set of rituals lost in the mists of time.

Like I mentioned, we might be isolated, but we are not alone.

Every office, from Manhattan office suite to local mom and pop grocery store is impacted by all this.

Harvard Business Review explores just a few of these cascading repercussions here:

There is no question that the workplace of the next ten years or so will look very different from the previous ten or so years, but the other question is how different we, and our expectations, will be.

And it won’t be ten years; it will be this year.

In many ways, there is no “normal” to go back to.

Will we return to commuting and a near universal work day schedule?

Is working “full-time” desirable, possible or practical? Will “full-time” be 40 hours a week? 35? 30?

Is the “gig-economy” a “transitional” economy? If so, to what?

How about work related “benefits” like retirement, Social Security or health care?

Is this convoluted economy proof of the necessity for universal health care? Or universal basic income?

Or is it the opposite?

In many ways, from elementary school to college, to the performing arts to predictable career tracks, it feels like 2020 was the big splat of a year – when everything spilled out and we are doing our best to make sense of it all.

In the first half of 2021, many of us are picking up the pieces of 2020. It feels like cleaning up after a party that got out of control.

The routine of a stable work schedule, even a much-dreaded commute, sounds good to many of us now.

Work has always been about much more than money.

Those forgettable workplace conversations, even that rushed commute, somehow define us.

They add shape, structure and substance to our day – maybe even our lives.

Zoom calls and meetings will never feel like home.

Normal won’t be what it was, but the cubicle and the commute don’t look so bad after all.