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Remote Work Won’t Save Us

The home office was never designed to give workers more freedom. The pandemic has only made it worse.

Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

A hallway room in the back of my childhood home contained the sewing machine and, beginning in the mid-1990s, a succession of computers. The first computer wasn’t even a computer; it was a monochrome word processor and printer. Then an uncle gave us a Macintosh 128k, a small boxy Apple personal computer with a floppy disk drive on the front. After that, we went through a series of Apple computers including one of those iMacs that looked like a piece of candy. Early on, I used the computers to play games. When dial-up internet arrived, my sisters and I pillaged a never-ending stream of free trial America Online CDs from the local Target to surf the internet and chat with friends. My parents used the computer infrequently for the occasional email.

Easy Living: The Rise of the Home Office
by Elizabeth A. Patton
Rutgers University Press, 216 pp., $28.95

It wasn’t until I read Elizabeth A. Patton’s new book, Easy Living: The Rise of the Home Office, that I realized the likely reason that we lacked a distinct computer room was that my parents were not professionals; my dad was a firefighter and my mom ran the home. Neither of them went to an office, so they did not need a dedicated version of the office at home. Professionals, on the other hand, did. I saw this in the houses of kids I babysat for in the neighborhood; they all had entire rooms set aside for their computers. The dad of one family said he often worked there on the weekends. Patton, a professor of media and communications, explains that this was no accident since professionals were a group of people that, since the 1980s, have been the targets of a campaign to devote portions of their homes to personal computers. 

But our family home did have its own antecedent to the home office. Growing up, a massive old hutch loomed over the dining room where my family ate dinner every night. The hutch’s counter held two distinct piles of mail on either side. On the left was my mom’s mail, and on the right was my dad’s. Next to the hutch was a wooden filing cabinet packed with hanging files. A child, spinning his or her spaghetti in a soup spoon, could just as easily lean back and flip through the tax records. The hutch established the principle on which the computer room would build: that a portion of the home should be devoted to office-like activities.

Over the course of the twentieth century, technological innovations from the telephone to the typewriter—initially conceived of as business and office tools—allowed for the public world of work to penetrate the privacy of home. New technologies tend to swirl leisure and work together, much like the part-office, part-dining room of my childhood. Most recently, computer rooms and home offices enabled upper-middle-class professionals to work from home, and the internet seemed to only further this promise. 

The utopian hope was that this would usher in a new age of work, but something very different happened. Many people—welders, hairstylists, bartenders—cannot do their jobs remotely; even amid Covid-19, when most office workers are telecommuting, many workers have to leave home for their jobs. Instead, the effect of this dream of the home office has been to whip work and leisure into a single blended porridge, in which work became the overwhelmingly dominant flavor. The result hasn’t been liberation; it’s just been the eradication of free time.      

Over the last three centuries, the conception of the home has varied widely. In the seventeenth century, Patton notes, there was in the New England home “no expectation of privacy, as rooms served multiple functions, with family members and sometimes strangers coming and going at will.” Instead of dedicated bedrooms, they had “multipurpose family rooms where all members of the family slept on makeshift beds.” Abigail Adams wrote an annoyed letter to her husband John in 1775, explaining that to accommodate a new boarder, she had moved John’s workspace into her bedroom. Worse, she couldn’t have people over. The house was so crowded as “not to have a Lodging for a Friend that calls to see me.”

Before the introduction of wage labor in the Industrial Revolution, the home was a place where all members of the family contributed to some kind of cottage production and often took in boarders to make money; this perpetually destroyed any notion of privacy. But once wage labor became widespread in the nineteenth century, work moved outside the home. If you operate heavy machinery in a steel mill or a textiles factory, you cannot easily bring your work home with you. This changed notions of what the home was for and made it so that, as Walter Benjamin observed of the nineteenth century, “the place of dwelling is for the first time opposed to the place of work.” Especially for a new middle class composed of industrial managers, the home came to be a refuge from the public world of work.

But in the twentieth century, bits of technology that were originally invented as business tools, like telephones and typewriters, slowly made their ways into the home. Along with them came new ideas about running a business, like Frederick Winslow Taylor’s principles of scientific management. In 1913, an author named Christine Frederick wrote a book that argued homemakers could achieve more freedom if they adopted the efficient principles and organizational strategies of a modern office, assisted by files, binders, typewriters, lists, and telephones. Running a home, while unpaid, was a lot of work and quite time-consuming. Frederick’s book was, one might say, an early attempt to find work-life balance. 

The booming post-war economy only retrenched the patriarchal middle-class life that emerged in the nineteenth century. Many families could thrive on a single income earned outside the home, and a private, fenced-off suburban home began the ideal of middle-class life. But once again, advances in communications technology would shred this arrangement. Most prominently, the telephone gained widespread use and brought the outside world into the home; a plumber or grocery clerk could be reached without leaving the house. And the portable typewriter allowed business people to conduct office-like activities at home. As the United States industrial economy declined and moved overseas, upper-middle-class theorists, politicians, and business people threw all their economic hopes behind the creation of a new class. The future would lie with highly educated professionals whose existence was divorced from the material limitations of the industrial economy. Creative knowledge workers like marketing executives, lawyers, consultants, and journalists could perform most of their duties any time, any place.

The foremost theorist of the new economic arrangement was Alvin Toffler. In 1980, he published a book called The Third Wave, in which he breathlessly theorized that soon the home would become an “electronic cottage,” a place where middle-class professionals in the suburbs could telecommute to their jobs and, as the mass media started to call it, work from home. A strict technological determinist, Toffler didn’t limit his vision to the middle class. He thought the electronic cottage would soon be ubiquitous and that the world would be transformed into a place of pure information work. The basis for his idea was a tool that integrated the telephone, the typewriter, and the filing cabinet: the personal computer.

Just like the makers of the telephone, most early computer companies like IBM focused on selling their products to businesses. But executives at Apple, relatively late to the computer market in the 1980s, saw big business in the idea of the personal computer. They also saw Apple as a company that would bring about Toffler’s predictions. One executive thought the personal computer was part of the transition from “an economy based on the foundations of the petrochemical industrial revolution to a new economy where information services and information products [will] become the building blocks that shape a very different world.”

This was a grandiose, utopian ideal, but their marketing literature suggested a more basic premise. With the computer at home, sure, your kids could learn to write letters and play games, but you could also “sneak in a little work on the side.” Apple, as Patton notes, catalyzed the insurgent neoliberal ideas about the changing nature of work. That is to say, the hyper-connected, flexible and unstable employment, decentralized offices, and always-on schedules that are omnipresent today. Simultaneously, real estate companies began to catch on. House plans of this era began to include computer rooms, surely riding the wave of middle-class interest in computers. It was a great excuse to sell even larger houses with more bedrooms than one family could possibly need. The soon-to-be-overheated housing market was only too happy to oblige McMansions with fistfuls of computer rooms, extra guest bedrooms, home theaters, and other novelties.  

Apple’s sales pitch picked up on Toffler’s techno-enthusiasm, and soon politicians embraced the idea. In 1994, Newt Gingrich suggested that Toffler’s book should be required reading for Congress. Toffler’s writing made it seem like the future of completely digitally connected work was inevitable and predetermined. But the application of the electronic cottage was limited. In 1995, a government survey found that home-based workers were likely to be high-income white males, often in the suburbs. And at the turn of the millennium, close to 70 percent of telecommuting workers were either in technical or professional fields, a limited group of workers. “Technological advances in communication technology,” Patton writes, “did not radically decentralize the economy.”

So what did it do? For one thing, it made it hard to stop working. Today, it is normal to hear of consultants crunching spreadsheets over dinner and start-up employees emailing late into the night. The technology that enabled the home office has now been made portable, so the office is not just brought home, it’s anywhere you carry your laptop and phone; all the world’s an office, and we are all merely workers, always working. It is sometimes suggested this creates a hyper-productive workforce and that we are more efficient than ever. If it has, we are not seeing the benefits. Wages have stagnated for workers across the board since 1973, and workers have also lost free time: the rise of work-from-anywhere technology has coincided with a stark increase in the number of hours that employees work. In 2018, one-third of Americans worked 45 hours a week or more, and 9.7 million worked more than 60 hours a week. In total, we work more than 7.8 percent more hours a year than in 1979. If hyperconnectivity has done anything, it has simply made it easier for bosses to heap more work on their employees, knowing that they can so easily continue their office work during unpaid hours at home. After the economic crisis of 2008 caused massive layoffs, this trend only increased.

Knowledge-working professionals float through lives that are never simply work or home, lives in which they struggle to clock out or log off. How did we get here? For one thing, the breathless promise of telecommuting happened alongside the abandonment of working-class people to the downsides of globalization and outsourcing. Affluent, neoliberal governments of the 1980s were essentially converting manufacturing jobs into service ones—brickmakers into baristas—but they didn’t make those jobs steady and well paying. 

Instead, politicians like Gingrich hoped a very limited group of the upper-middle-class knowledge workers would, alone, lead the country to prosperity. They egged on this future by continuously loosening restrictions on finance, which not only supercharged the banking industry itself (a bastion of “creative” work) but subsequently allowed torrents of venture capital to rush into largely unregulated tech firms. Apple cashed in on and stoked the enthusiasm for an upper-middle class, technologically networked life. It continued to make products that ever more seamlessly integrated our private lives with our public work lives, first with the personal computer, then the laptop, and finally the smartphone (which, you’ll notice, is just the combination of the computer and that old privacy destroying technology, the telephone). They’ve successfully mashed work and leisure into one constant stream; a work message on Slack or a text message from your spouse look almost identical.

The much-vaunted benefits of working from home were elusive. Most people today still have to go to work outside the home; the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that in 2018 only three percent of workers with less than a high school degree worked remotely, compared to the 47 percent who have a bachelor’s. And in total, only about 25 percent of all workers worked from home. The pandemic has revealed that most offices that could have had their employees work from home prior to the crisis didn’t. They did not have systems in place to let their employees work remotely. One friend who works for the city of New York simply didn’t work for a month because there was no server in place to let him do his work from his home laptop. And on the eve of the pandemic, video conferencing apps like Zoom were plagued with problems, clearly not road tested on a mass scale. 

Today, I type this from a desktop computer I have set up in my bedroom, which enables my occasional knowledge work as a journalist. During the pandemic, I have been able to keep myself busy, though I wait to get called back to my primary job. My situation mirrors that of the United States economy in general. Many people who are currently working from home will be called back to an office. The fact that many people could work from home was useful, but it was not enough to save the economy from collapse. It is just enough to keep the wheels spinning. To date, tens of millions of people have been thrown out of work. Working from home may have insulated professional-class workers from the worst of the crisis, keeping them in work while out of the office, but in many cases, only barely. Scores of digital media workers are being laid off as we speak. And for many who have held on to their jobs, home is not a place where a lot of work can be done. If you have children—whether infants, who need constant attention, or older children, whose online learning needs supervision—it can be almost impossible to complete the usual workload.

The flexible freelancers and other assorted professionals that Toffler, Apple, and Gingrich championed are better off than low wage workers who must venture out of their homes every day to earn a living, but who knows for how long. And Toffler conveniently forgot to account for the fact that any electronic cottage would still rely on a massive class of service and care workers to function. Work-from-home parents need childcare or else, as the pandemic has revealed, working from home might be impossible. Remote workers also rely on the predominantly low-paid global supply chains of workers to deliver their communities’ groceries, consumer goods, and utilities. This was true before the crisis but made obvious now.

Benefits like remote working, Patton observes, have tended to make knowledge workers “forget that they are in solidarity with the working class.” But flexible and creative labor is, after all, still labor. More importantly, the two are inextricably connected. The “work-life balance” afforded by the home office, Patton writes, is nothing more than “a myth that keeps workers from recognizing the exploitation of their labor and the dependence on service workers to support work-life balance.” If the pandemic has revealed that most work is facilitated by other work, and thus fiercely interwoven, then it follows that our society needs to prioritize the development of an egalitarian economic system that acknowledges this fact. One that knows utopia isn’t a sleek, Tron-like world of electronic cottages. It is much simpler. It is when work is humane and lucrative for everyone.