Working at home is not that smart

Over the last few days we have been constantly hearing about “smart working”; however, it became clear soon that what we are doing outside the workplaces could be better defined as remote working, teleworking, or working remotely. More precisely, following the advice not to leave our homes, what we do is merely working at home. Smart working, instead, is a flexible model involving the patterns of subordinate work as far as times and places are concerned. Do you need to focus and study? You may stay home. Is anyone arranging a meeting or discussing a project? He/she may prefer reaching the office. And so on, depending on personal needs and circumstances. As a result, this kind of work gives the chance to “select” time and places to be in, to promote individual choices, amid a general duty to go to office as a physical location. Due to enthusiastic articles calling upon the current situation as a new potential paradigm for the future, some clarifications are necessary. Namely, the governmental decree (Dpcm “smart working”) enacted on the 8th of March is likely to appear as a modern (and forced) form of working from home, aimed at avoiding the severe spread of Covid-19. It is not that easy, indeed. Facing countless efforts to reshape public and private organization of “ordinary” life, delays and difficulties of all kinds are a tough reality. A good option for those who succeeded despite the struggle. But there is nothing “smart” or “agile” here, since underestimation and misunderstandings are right around the corner. Obviously, we are dealing with something unforeseen, requiring us to rethink scans of “existence” as well as habits and freedom of movement with the aim of protecting our community from an invisible risk attempting people’s life. It is an unprecedented situation, still difficult to be figured out. Actually, showing the concrete organizational solutions looks quite an achievement.

However, even though the efforts made to protect citizens’ health are commendable, when the society is stuck in a moment putting the body at the very core of the problem, its vulnerability and fragility are trapped within old hierarchies. For instance, a wise relocation of work at home – aware of this urgent situation – is based on the assumption that “home” is an empty space to fill in with “outer” work activity, with no impact at all on our previous lives. University professors, for instance, were asked to keep on with the planned courses, to comply with graduation sessions, receptions, supervisions, meetings. No one really managed to reschedule deadlines, to resettle time lines, or at least to review them, whereas everything was simply moved “online” and literally to their own homes. Yet, spending several hours teaching online can hardly replace physical presence, encompassing commitment and the anxiety to reach distant, often invisible, contacts. A colleague told me that in order to convince her young kids to keep quiet for such a long time, she had to rely on “a task force”, thus yelling and veiled intimidating remarks were not enough to leave her alone while doing her work. While explaining the content of her lectures, part of her attention was paid to prevent the normal noise within a house from overwhelming her lesson. In the meantime, working time runs out, through preparation, the settlement of an appropriate location, management of relations, in the extra time needed to retrieve the one lost in this procedure. It then ends to be double work, still not curtailing the length of courses as a precious solution. Of course, a temporary one, well bared in times of emergency, which would turn better if bureaucratic requirements, forms, online meeting were reduced, whereas the persistence of consolidated hierarchies comes into the surface.

As a matter of fact, home threshold is pictured as a neutral world, working on its own. Actually, all the activities carried out “inside” the house (caring of children shall only be the most evident) do not unveil “outside” the field of public visibility, not gaining sufficient worth, or imbued with the (institutional) rhetoric of productivity. Working from home requires a huge amount of training. Striving for a concrete organization in space and time which were originally meant for living, waking up, dressing, meeting, eating, resting and all the other common actions can surely happen, but it is neither easy nor immediate. On social networks, people are now comparing their personal situations, they are joking and complaining about the issue at the same time. One can read about improvised work spaces, or home environments transformed into a “set” allowing calls, lessons, appointments while cameras are constantly switched on. Nowadays all of above might serve the purpose to de-locate work, asking for online presence, but far from an emergency framework it can represent a space for isolation concentration and identification instead. A well known circumstance to those workers who are used to nomadic and networked organization, due to times of precariousness that had led to identify home with the main workplace. They have already enjoyed the benefits of flexible organization, making a simple “house” a ductile, porous, adaptable space, thus counterbalancing its shortcomings. Not surprisingly, our dwelling cannot be easily constrained throughout strict rules: there will always be something escaping and resisting our control. It resembles an eternal and overextending time, which can be expanded or contracted at pure will; a circular turn of time that can difficult meet up the demands of productive work, whose goals, on the contrary, are clearly defined. Many people are spending their time following different and overlapping routines, and it takes a lot of restraint and creativity to attain an effective organization, doing what is due and trying to overcome oppression or vagueness. This becomes more evident since our “in/out” movements are not free as they usually were before, and web spaces must now cover all forms of non-domestic relationships. Surely, this kind of de-contextualization drains out of energy, leading the work room to become an exhausting and confused space, forcing to unprecedented strength and focus. It is worth confronting with such feelings, clarifying thoughts, inventions as well as frustrations. It is desirable sharing the outcomes of these forms of organization with the world “outside”, aiming at tracing and listing possibilities, limits and, moreover, to rescue them from total invisibility. Communicating in a public forum about new daily routines, thoughts, creative adaptations, or ideas stemming from “necessity” could perhaps change everyday life in something less “natural”, avoiding similar tasks in the future. The aftermath of this collective “experience” shows that life needs to combine with usual job, care work, relationships, assistance and the “neglected” – often delegated – domestic work, increased by a peculiarly “overcrowded” house. These days can provide us with all the elements to imagine a true “agile” future, in which flexibility does not frame spaces and times of life through their final colonization, but enhances the potentiality of new balances against the traditional hierarchies.

Sandra Burchi, Research Fellow in Sociology, University of Pisa