If you want me to work in an office, I demand to commute in a flying car
Therein lies the rub for Alvin Toffler’s dream of a society freed from the constraints of the 4ft x 4ft cubicle. Many employers still don’t buy into it. They include Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo! chief executive, who last week issued a decree banning her staff from working from home. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” read her email to employees.
Some of the outcry that greeted the leaked memo may have been fuelled by the fact that Mayer is one of only a few women at the upper echelons of Silicon Valley and so many people – reductively, perhaps – hoped she would pave the way for more family-friendly workplaces. Mayer, who also recently said she didn’t regard herself as a feminist, seems determined to do just the opposite.
The working-from-home myth
But whatever her motivation, I think she’s got this one spectacularly wrong. So Toffler’s dream hasn’t quite played out as planned, but “working from home” is not, as she and many others seem to believe, code for “watching episodes of Murder She Wrote in your dressing gown, while taking occasional breaks from delinting your wardrobe to dash off stressed sounding emails to your colleagues”. (Actually, I prefer Cash in the Attic.)
Even when I had jobs that required me to be physically present in the office for good chunks of my working week, I always found excuses to work from home. Now I work from home full-time, I sometimes pack up my laptop and head into the library at Trinity College to sit at a cramped desk surrounded by snuffling, sweaty students – just because I can.
Being in control of your environment is surprisingly life-affirming. Working from home is not a licence to malinger, especially if you get paid only for what you produce. Yes, there are more housework breaks, and, if you have children, occasional raps on your office door followed by an interrogation about how long human beings could survive on Venus or whether The Voice of Ireland will continue until “all the judges are dead”. (Answers: “zero seconds” and “probably”.)
But these brief interludes of time-wasting pale in comparison to the creative work-avoidance strategies people in regular jobs have come up with. Things you will never need to know until you work in an office include how to doze with your eyes open in meetings, the correct use of phrases such as “low-hanging fruit”, and why leaving your desk to locate a stapler can take 45 seconds on Monday morning, but four and a half hours on Friday afternoon.
Home-working isn’t for everyone. There are plenty of people who find it isolating and distracting – at the end of the Stanford experiment, half of the employees of the travel firm elected to go back to the office. Others would like to work from home sometimes, but need the interaction with others. And even for the rest of us, it is not always a Toffleresque utopia.