Author: Marie Rickert, a PhD candidate and linguistic anthropologist at Maastricht University. Her current research project focuses on multi- and monolingual language practices, ideologies and policies in day-care centres in the German-Dutch border region.
Yesterday, I started an email to my supervisor with the opener “I am wearing shoes today and it seems to make me more productive. How’s it going in your kitchen-office?”. Another colleague had previously shared with us that she had started to put on shoes in the morning before starting her work for the day. Today, I informed a co-worker that she had apparently confused me with someone else as the addressee of an email and she answered “Yes, I’m sorry! I have a toddler on my knees.”
Whereas two weeks ago this personal information would have been quite unexpected and maybe even out of place in most professional emails, I easily type or read them now, without so much as a sideways glance. So what has happened in the last two weeks?
I am writing this piece in March 2020 while the world experiences a global pandemic. Physical distancing measures to prevent the spread of Coronavirus have left many without work and even more fearing for their jobs. Others are just temporarily prevented from gathering in their usual physical workspace and are suddenly asked to perform their tasks remotely at home.
A lot of those who had a distinct physical ‘home’ and ‘office’ at different locations, now make their home their office during this lock-down. From the way people go about this, we can learn a lot about the meanings they attribute to their work and to their workplaces.
Since the start of the implementation of physical distancing measures, my social media has filled up with articles with tips for working from home. A piece of advice I came across frequently is to choose a dedicated area at home, no matter how small it might be, and declare it your workspace. The idea behind this is that a new classification of one specific place in the domestic space helps to switch from the mode of ‘doing home’ to ‘doing work’ and vice versa, thereby aiming to separate the personal from the professional.
Whereas this might have the intended psychological effect, seeing my colleagues on various video-calls in their domestic sphere, even in a place they have dedicated to work, has provided me with glimpses into their homes and thereby into something rather private. Recognizing a framed poster of a football-team in the background, even seeing the mugs my colleagues drink their coffee from in their home-office (and in my mind thereby automatically at home) are new pieces of information about them to me.
I heard from a friend who got quite distracted by the sharp image of a professor’s bookshelf brought to her by their new webcam in a zoom-meeting: Do they really read as much chick flick books as that shelf suggests? My friend laughed while telling the story. She had never seen this genre among the books in the professor’s office at university before.
From Daniel Miller’s research on material culture, we can learn that objects in homes are rich accounts of and tools for identity constitution. The comfort of things that might have rather pertained to the private sphere pre-homeoffice, plays an important role in re-negotiating the personal and the professional now.
This is, however, not to say that the private and the professional sphere are separated through offices that are physically distant from an employee’s domestic sphere, nor that it is at all possible to draw a thick line between the personal and the professional. Workers are people after all.
Research in (non-home)offices has shown that employees tend to personalise their office workspace through things like artwork from children or plants. Even staff working in flexible open-floor plans without an assigned desk would often make their desk-for-the-day temporarily their own, for example through first re-arranging any shared equipment before starting work. The personal and the professional stand in dynamic relation to one another, and the current remote working policies add new layers to this relation. The salience of this interplay gets reflected in communication practices as well, as the previous emails show.
À propos the emails, the case of my colleague who wrote to me with a toddler on her knees hints at another important point: family members, pets or roommates might contest the performative act of declaring a specific place at home a workplace from one moment to the next. They might still understand the domestic space as a home sphere and behave accordingly. Or they might simply have needs requiring care and thereby massively (re-)personalize the intended workspace, and with good reason.
I have heard stories of zoom-calls in which a colleague’s cat apparently wanted to contest the re-spatialization of the living room to a workspace and kept walking into the webcam’s reach. The cat makes it clear: the space also belongs to her. In fact, she has probably been alone in the living room during the day, before her owner started their home-office. We therefore see: Place-making is a joint endeavour that happens through interaction.
Personally, I have been working from and living in my parent’s place for the last two weeks, in “my” old room that I occupied as a child. I also followed the advice to have a dedicated work spot for the lock-down. Mine is a composition of laid out papers with notes I would normally tidy up at the end of each work day so my colleagues would not see the mess, and my laptop on a stack of two picture albums filled with childhood photographs, which are so big that they elevate the laptop and thereby provide for a more ergonomic workspace. It doesn’t feel like the office, but my undertakings there do feel like work.
Work and non-work
These undertakings now mainly happen online. They include plenty of things I used to do pre-homeoffice as well, and tasks I still planned to tackle physically at university before I knew about the need to flatten the curve: writing my research plan, chatting with colleagues about life, writing emails, having coffee breaks with other PhDs, teaching, applying for ethical clearance and forwarding funny tweets to a friend. You might have realized that amongst these are some activities that are definitely not included in the tasks mentioned in my work contract, and you are absolutely right (but please don’t worry, it’s all still in a healthy balance). From what I have heard, I am by no means the only one who has moved her coffee breaks to Skype and the discussion of the latest personal stories from the weekend with colleagues to WhatsApp.
Practices of work come with practices of non-work. How important these practices of non-work are for making sense of what work and the workplace mean to us becomes very clear as we witness that a lot of people have moved them online, together with their actual work practice, or, if we want to take it further, even as a fully integrated part of their work practice.
It’s the end of the personal and professional (home-)working day now: time to take off my shoes. Until tomorrow, when I will switch the mode from ‘doing home’ to ‘doing work’ again.
[Image of woman on couch is not the author and is public domain (CC0 1.0)]