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The ideal commute


The first day of May is an important holiday in much of the world, but not here. May Day in those nations is a celebration of work and workers, often an occasion for parades, and sometimes for demonstrations and strikes. Those of us who work partly or completely at home miss out on this kind of collective fun. If we parade, we will be on our own. If we strike, nobody will notice. The definition of what it means to be a “worker” has been changing for a long time. and is changing even faster now.

We are in the middle of a confused struggle over the issue of how and where we should work, or indeed whether we should work at all. About one fifth of all employees have found that working at home is a pleasure, and even a liberation. Some put the figure much higher. But many employers are unhappy with this. They would prefer their staff to show up at the office occasionally, if only to say hallo. On the sidelines of this debate are millions of employees whose jobs do not and never will allow them to work from home: waitresses, garbage removal operatives, lawn care technicians and so on.

Professionals used to have an unfair advantage here. Our old family doctor for example, worked from his home at the end of the street, using the living room as his waiting room and the dining room for consulting, It seemed to work, at least I’m still here. But now even many professionals have been corralled into factory-like office blocks, with factory-like work rules.

For much of my working life I have been fortunate enough to work at home because most of what I did and still do — unlike the work of a waitress or garbage man — can be done anywhere at any time, or not done at all.

But, for a couple of decades back in the dark ages of my life I was a slave of the timetable and the workplace, and I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t enjoy the long, suffocating commutes, or the suspicion that much of my time between leaving home and getting back was being wasted, and I never experienced the famous camaraderie around the water cooler, because we never had a water cooler, and we were expected to work, not gossip.

There have been many articles recently about working from home — praising its flexibility or condemning its isolation. It is certainly a confusing change of traditional habits, summed up by the popular T Shirt: “Am I working from home or living at work?”

What worries employers is Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion, and which is absolutely and invariably correct. The more time we have to do it the less work we get done. The boss reasonably suspects that his employees at home, at any given moment of the workday, may be cutting the lawn, playing with the cat, or just fast asleep. All kinds of devices are being used to tempt them back to the office: free food, gyms, free parking, flexible hours. None of this really competes with playing with the cat or, for that matter, sleeping.

The whole debate may become irrelevant very soon, as artificial intelligence takes over millions of routine tasks, including mine. Tech companies have already fired thousands of their employees. We may be looking at not the end of working at home, but the end of working at all.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.