Working from Home — The Latest Form of Alienated Labour
As an introvert, I love working from home. Gone is the stress of commuting. I wake up whenever I please and work at my own pace without feeling that anyone is watching over my shoulder. I feel I’ve a kind of creative liberty at home that dull corporate office spaces tend to stifle. And I suspect I’ve been more productive since covid-19 made working from home a more permanent reality.
Yet, lately I’ve had a nagging sense that I’m stagnating. I’m getting on with my work, my outputs are fine; but I’m not thriving. And it’s hard to pinpoint why.
Friends in other sectors and in other parts of the world report similar feelings. My friend R., a content writer from the Philippines who’s also been forced to work from home tells me via Facebook Messenger:
Honestly, staying here in this job makes me feel trapped. The lack of opportunities, the low income… I honestly don’t see myself having a future here.
Our first assumption is that we’re trapped in jobs that aren’t our calling. Together, we fantasize about career changes, hoping that perhaps immersion in a new type of work may help us get over sustained professional and personal slumps.
The disruptions of covid-19 have certainly provided a valuable opportunity to reflect on whether we have picked the right careers. Yet, I suspect poor career choices are not the core of our problems. What if the problem might not be dissatisfaction with our line of work, but rather with changes covid has introduced to the ways our work is organized? What if our malaise isn’t happening despite the ‘freedom’ of working from home, but because of it?
Working from home is alienating us from something vital for learning and belonging.
The introvert in me hates to admit it, but essential to acquiring new knowledge and skills — processes core to our professional and personal development — is active participation in the social and cultural life of the workplace. This is a point clearly laid out in Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s now classic text, Situated Learning.
Lave and Wenger argue that we learn and develop skills through legitimate peripheral participation within communities of practice.
Yes, it’s a mouthful. Here’s what it implies:
— The activities that make up our lives occur within social contexts — in relations with fellow practitioners of those activities — within ‘communities of practice.’ Workplaces are communities of practice.
— Learning new knowledge and skills occurs through active participation within the life of communities of practice. This participation is first ‘peripheral’ (in relatively simple tasks at the margins of communities) and later graduates to ‘full participation.’
— This participation must be regarded as legitimate by members of the community — otherwise one is not a meaningful participant.
— Characteristics of communities of practice affect the opportunities they provide for learning and graduation from peripheral to full participation. Not all are environments in which learners thrive; some are plain toxic. Overly hierarchical communities of practice and overly didactic, non-participatory approaches to imparting knowledge may inhibit learning opportunities for newcomers.
— The transparency of communities of practice is especially important. Newcomers should be able to gain a progressive understanding of how the community is organized from their ‘peripheral’ vantage point. They should be able to ascertain the tasks that are performed by different people, the kind of social relationships that exist in the community, how people interact and talk to each other, who the authorities and skilled people are, and how one can participate in new activities to enhance their skills and graduate to fuller participation in the life of the community.
— With a sense of ‘the lay of the land,’ the newcomer may begin to imagine a future for themselves as a full member of the community. This creates a desire for belonging, which can be a powerful motivator to learn, develop skills, and engage. One begins to build an identity as a member of the community with valued skills and contributions to make.
Prolonged working from home creates serious barriers to legitimate peripheral participation and the opportunities for growth, development, motivation-enhancement, and identity-consolidation that it offers. I’d go so far as to suggest that if you wanted to structure a workplace to minimize opportunities for legitimate peripheral participation, a heavy reliance on remote work would be the ideal way to do it.
When remote working is normalised, workplaces become opaque communities of practice with limited social participation.
Yes, we try to arrange Zoom meetings to compensate, but we all know they’re a poor substitute for co-presence. It is not only that video chats are an inadequate means of fostering genuine social connection. It’s also that we’re not getting everyday exposure to the social life of our workplaces or opportunities to observe and participate in the productive activities of those we recognize as skilled seniors.
This is a danger especially for people who are early in their careers. Working at a distance, one never gets a real sense of how their industry is organized, who is doing more advanced tasks, and how one might become more involved. Without face-to-face interaction with colleagues, one never consolidates a sense of the legitimacy of their participation and whether one will ever become a ‘full participant.’ Without this, it’s hard to imagine a future for oneself within their industry. One has no identity in the workplace.
I suspect this is why my friends and I have been plagued by feelings that we’re in the wrong profession: our involvement within our ‘communities of practice’ feels ephemeral, superficial, perpetually peripheral without a clear pathway to deeper participation.
In his 1844 manuscripts, Karl Marx described how capitalist development results in alienated labour. He describes how the capitalist mode of production alienates us from the products of our labour, from control over our labour process, from nature, and from society.
Sustained working from home can only constitute a further development in the alienation of labour: alienating us from the workforce, from meaningful relationships with fellow practitioners, from the relations of production.
So although there’s a lot that I personally enjoy about working from home, I feel a need for caution when I hear predictions that it may become the ‘new normal’ for many (particularly office-based) workers beyond the end of the pandemic. Let’s not celebrate being ‘liberated’ from our corporate offices, just yet.
There will be many industries seeking to capitalize on this moment, initiating long-term restructuring to reduce expenditure on office space and facilities by ‘allowing’ us to work from home. Yet, as a society, we need to pause and reflect on whether this short-term cost-cutting may pose serious risks of long-term economic, social, and psychological stagnation.