MANAGING BOUNDARIES WHILE WORKING FROM HOME, 1960-PRESENT
Keywords:Work from home, telework, remote work, digital nomad, impression management
The COVID-19 pandemic has been heralded as a watershed moment for remote work, an exodus of the American workforce that will never fully reverse. As major corporations debate returning to the office full-time, and other workers press or are pressed into returning to the office, this panel situates the present realities of remote work within telework’s long history. From the paperless office to the electronic cottage, much of the focus in mainstream discourses surrounding telework has been on demonstrating the technological feasibility of leaving workers at home and workforce adaptability, with secondary celebrations of ecological soundness and potential for employment growth. Discourses around the benefit of telework also frequently draw on blanket statements about what remote work affords workers—from wellness and eschewing commute times, to increasing flexibility—but do not directly take up the lived quotidian experiences of doing labor in this configuration. This panel intervenes by yoking the politics and fantasies of remote work with worker experience during work from home, especially of self-management of both individual affect, group and power dynamics, and environment. Within this frame, this collection of papers suggests that, while remote work suggests a dislocation of office and home and the creation of a third space, the overlays of work and home are always top of mind for individual workers, whether in their homes with children or while traveling as “digital nomads.” The panel suggests that navigating this collapse creates a “third space,” and is a site of ever-present negotiation for workers, both individually and in social dynamics across organizations. This panel works across a number of methods including ethnography, archival research of both born-digital and traditional objects and draws on interviews and survey data. The panel points to not only how workers act in front of the screen, but what is supporting remote work off and behind it: domestic architectures, impression management, and paid and unpaid forms of domestic labor. The panel opens with a pair of papers that look at the historical development of work from home in order to situate the COVID-19 pandemic and its use of remote work as both a form of rupture and as a continuation of the logics, fantasies, and environments that pre-date this massive and rapid expansion into remote work. In “Home/Work: The Long History of the Future of Work,” Devon Powers reads the history of progress and futural narratives attached to telework, and the renovations both material and ideological to the spaces that are enfolded into remote work: home and the office. Powers pays special attention to the collapse of work and home, and the creation of a third space that is actually only an expansion of an existing one—the everywhere office. In “Make It Work: Hiding Children in Telework,” Hannah Zeavin takes up the feminization of remote work, which is subtended by the fantasy that, by working from home, women might “have it all”: they can do childcare and paid labor at once. Zeavin examines how workers have negotiated this collapse of waged and unwaged labor by disappearing and hiding the visual and sonic evidence of children during work from home. Nancy Baym et al look to the management of the worker’s own visibility in “Video On/Off: Managing Visibility in Remote Videoconferencing” with 44% of American workers suddenly home in the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors ran a five-month longitudinal diary study of meetings at a large technology company between April and August 2020, comprised of 849 employees. The paper looks at reasons for (dis)comfort with appearing on camera during work and how workers negotiate the contradictions of on and off. In “Abruptly Online: Public Employees’ Adaptation to Virtual Communication in Times of Crisis," Sierra Bray and Cynthia Barboza-Wilkes consider the special category of public employees and the challenges and benefits of work from home in a group of workers who had a novel relationship to working online. Andrea Alarcon, in “Outsourcing the Home: the Digital Nomad Tactic ” looks at the apotheosis of work from home in the rise of the “digital nomad.” Alarcon intervenes by pointing to the unacknowledged support and costs of “nomadic life” in the city of Medellin and the workers who travel and collapse the identities of tourist and laborer, and vacation with work.