“Technology has played a major role in eliminating the domestic drudgery that for centuries culturally stupefied women and reduced them to mere servants of men…” – Murray Bookchin, The Next Revolution
Like many tech startup workers, one of my work benefits is the ability to work remotely from home or elsewhere. In my case, this came as a result of my team gradually becoming geographically-distributed while still maintaining just one office.
Nearly half of my teammates work exclusively from home/remote. However, I am based where the company is headquartered, and, as such, I am expected to work primarily from the company’s office. This is not a huge problem for me, except for some days when I am either traveling, have personal or family tasks, or those days when there are major issues with NYC’s illustrious public transportation system. In those cases, it is helpful to be able to work from home or wherever I am currently staying. Unfortunately, that is never without its own complications.
First, the good.
The Benefits of Working From Home As A Working Mother/Wife
Working from home means I don’t have to go crazy with the minutiae of femme gender performance (what to wear, how to do my hair, making sure I have a full face of makeup), rush to drop off my kid, and then race to the train. Cutting the commute often also means…
While I can’t stay in PJs all day since I still have to leave the house to drop off my kid, I usually get a better breakfast and can get to the gym if I have those two hours of commute time in the bank. As a working mother and wife, any extra minutes to myself are a total gift. I am also sometimes able to schedule local appointments on those days or even just grab a quick coffee with a neighbor.
Starting the “Second Shift” Early
As described in Arlie Hochschild’s seminal book of the same name, the “second shift” describes the additional unwaged work many women are expected to do both before and after their waged work day. This shift includes childcare, cooking, cleaning, and responsibilities to/with extended family/community. While my husband is extremely helpful, I am still very much expected to be the “captain” of our domestic sphere. When I work from the office, I have to do this shift outside of work hours, but when I work from home I can sometimes squeeze a bit of it in. A load of laundry can go down at 9am instead of 7pm and dinner can get started hours before stomachs start grumbling.
While I’d love not to have to do this stuff at all, since it is on my plate, it can be handy to to use some of the daytime hours to try and tackle it.
The Downsides of Working from Home as a Working Mother/Wife
Missing Important Work Conversations/Opportunities
Everyone I know who works remote for a company that actually has an office tells me they inevitably miss out on the hallway banter, and I know that when I work from home — despite having a distributed team — there are many discussions that I don’t overhear and decisions that I hear about much later on because I was out of sight and out of mind. The more I can be in the office, the more I can keep an ear out for how I can be an advocate for myself, my team, and our customers.
The fact also remains that at many companies, leadership opportunities are not extended to people who work remote. I was promoted last year and I think without the day in/day out interactions with my boss, it would have been much harder to demonstrate my value. I put in the fleshspace face time, and he saw me putting in the work day in and day out.
Considering that black people have to do twice the amount of work to get half as far (and make that double for black women!), I can’t see myself working at home too very much if I want to get ahead.
Fewer Social Interactions
Although I must admit that I don’t talk to my co-workers that much whether in the office or when working from home, there is always something to potentially be gained from quick water cooler conversation or post-lunch banter. The people I work with are very different from me and talking to them can give me new perspectives on our work and the world. I don’t get any of that when I am not in the office and people also don’t get any of that from me. While I have expressed my exasperation with “diversity in tech”, I will say that if we are going to push for diverse teams but everyone is working remote, then it seems the value of said diversity is greatly diminished.
Also, while I have no plans to stop the presses and take up the picket at my current place of employment, I do wonder about the future of unions with an increasingly stratified work force. Unlike the 40 hour work week or disability, remote work wasn’t granted after long-fought struggle, and that makes me suspicious. I can’t help but believe that this whole business of letting people enjoy the “freedom” of working from home is undoubtedly geared towards further alienating workers not just from their labor but from each other.
Expanded Second Shift
As outlined above, second shift work does often happen when I work from home. When I work from the office, I always go out and pick up lunch — sometimes even a coffee. When I work from home, I have to take time out to prepare my own lunch which is always a slippery slope into doing several other tasks in the kitchen and sometimes throughout the house.
Being at home means I have more time to run my eyes over everything that needs taking care of throughout my house, which inevitably leads to something needing to be wiped up or swept away or vacuumed. I, of course, can’t be doing that mess if I am not in the house.
Longer Work Day (if I am not careful)
The lines between home and work are blurred when I work from home. Whereas in the office I see my peers packing up and signaling quitting time, at home I can carry on working until well into dinner if I am not careful or if I let Second Shift cut into First Shift and then feel the need to “work off my debt”. This means that my goal of taking positive advantage of the two hours of commute time often goes unrealized.
All in all, I am glad that I have the ability to work from outside of the office when I need/wish to, but as a black working mother and wife, I am not a remote work enthusiast. While the freedom of the nomad life might be wonderful for a great many, the opportunity to be temporarily freed from the domestic sphere and also possibly increase my opportunities for career success seem to outweigh the joys of working in pajama bottoms.