Working from home has a long history – be careful what you wish for not wanting to go back to the office – The Guardian - Freelance Rack

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Monday, May 25, 2020

Working from home has a long history – be careful what you wish for not wanting to go back to the office – The Guardian

In the Wall Street Journal, Dana Mattioli and Konrad Putzier speculate that the white-collar workplace as we know it might soon cease to exist.

They cite Twitter’s plan to allow its 5,000 or so staff to work from home indefinitely, along with plans by OpenText Corp to cut more than 50% of its global offices.

“Many executives …” they say, “point to the success of an unprecedented work-from-home experiment, and how little productivity appears to have been impacted after millions of employees in technology, media, finance and other industries have been forced to work remotely for months.”

Yet if we’re to understand why some 74% of corporations, according to one study, now intend to employ at least some of their staff in that way, we should recognise work from home as neither “unprecedented” nor “an experiment” but rather a method of labour organisation crucial to the development of the modern economy.

When capitalism first took hold in Britain, industrialists relied upon the so-called “putting out” system, in which subcontractors distributed raw materials to men and women labouring for piece rates in their homes. The arrangement persisted for centuries, prevailing in the manufacture of cloth, ceramics, gloves, lace, knitted goods and similar items well into the 19th century.

Today, after weeks of staying at home, many of us regard the prospect of returning to a centralised workplace with a mixture of ambivalence and dread.

It’s a sentiment that the men and women of the 18th century would have recognised.

Back then, most people sought to labour in their own house, with factory work only a last resort. The “putting out” method might have entailed dreary toil for minimal pay but it allowed workers to exercise some control as to what they did and when. They could continue to supervise their children, tend their animals and maintain their gardens, while celebrating the religious and folk holidays central to early modern society.

By contrast, as the historian NSB Gras says, factories emerged “purely for purposes of discipline so that the workers could be effectively controlled under the supervision of foremen”. Indeed, as another scholar notes, “there were few areas of the country in which modern industries … if carried on in large buildings, were not associated with prisons, workhouses and orphanages”.

Because the first white-collar workers usually performed some kind of management function, early “offices” often functioned as a privileged adjunct to the factory. A senior clerk in the 1850s might, for instance, expect to perform his duties in a work environment that “closely resembled his home in its furniture, its open fire, curtains and, by the end of the century, gas lighting”.

But, as clerical work proliferated, the office became subjected to the same supervisory techniques by which Frederick Winslow Taylor broke industrial labour into simple, carefully-timed components. Management texts from the first decades of the 20th century reveal an obsession with controlling the most humdrum of tasks, with “the seemingly innocuous act of blotting […] accused of wasting 35 seconds [and] the minuscule time differences in fastening together papers by way of a paperclip versus a tag […] the subject of much discussion”.

Today, most of us don’t get assessed on the basis of how quickly we turn in our swivel chairs (it should take 0.009 of a minute, according to a guide from 1960).

That’s because, by bringing workers out of the home, the office (just like the factory) gave them collective social power. Despite the best efforts of “efficiency experts”, white-collar employees began to organise – and, by so doing, won at least some control over their working life.

As a result, for every person you know who wants to stay at home, you can probably think of another who misses the camaraderie of a shared workspace: a place to chat, to make friends and, at times, to rebel.

The contradiction plays out in the corporate enthusiasm for office abolition.

Naomi Klein has identified an attempt to use Covid 19 to impose what she wittily calls a “Screen New Deal”. She argues that the shock of the pandemic has provided cover for those who would implement a raft of oppressive social practices associated with the tech industry.

Certainly, in the workplace, the virus has rendered many of us almost totally dependent on third-party software packages, in ways that potentially give employers tremendous power.

Earlier iterations of the newly ubiquitous Zoom, for instance, contained an option called “attention tracking”, which, under certain circumstances, notified administrators if users clicked away from the active window for more than half a minute. The feature’s now been removed but you can see how working from home might normalise all kinds of other so-called “employee tracking software”.

“My manager knows every single damn thing I do,” a semi-anonymous remote worker called “Jane” explained to Vox. “I barely get to stand up and stretch, as opposed to when I am physically in the office. I feel like I have to constantly be in front of the computer and work because if not, either the [software] logs me out for being idle, or my manager randomly sends a check-in email that I must reply to promptly.”

In the 19th century, capitalists needed workers in one place to monitor them, and that meant paying for expensive factories, in which troublesome trade unions could potentially organise.

Today, though, it’s actually easier to surveil an atomised remote-based workplace than one congregating in a single building. By keeping their staff at home, bosses can disrupt workplace collectivity – and can save on rent while doing so.

It remains to be seen how many companies will follow through on the new anti-office rhetoric. But in these strange times, an embrace of a high-tech “putting out” system might yet be on the cards, as capitalism goes back to its future in increasingly dystopian ways.

  • Jeff Sparrow is a Guardian Australia columnist

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