Inside Story

Home offices and remote parents

Attention-seeking technologies are increasingly blurring the line between home and work, writes Melissa Gregg

Melissa Gregg 29 September 2011 3333 words


WHEN Susan became pregnant with twins, she saw it as an opportune moment to invest in a wireless broadband connection. As the head of a small university department, she carried a lot of responsibility and could already anticipate that her absence on maternity leave would pose a problem for colleagues. As it turned out, her workplace did contact her every day of her maternity leave with queries of one kind or another. Her willingness to engage in work when she was on leave was admirable testimony to her commitment to the job, but it also indicated her employer’s inadequate staffing and planning procedures. Susan realised that there was no one to explain details to her replacement while she was away. Yet her own actions contributed to ensuring that these shortcomings would continue in future.

By the time the twins were born, Susan was reliant on her home connection to stay in touch with work. “I’m a bit obsessive about it,” she says, estimating that she would check her email roughly every half-hour. “Even if I’m cooking I’ll go and check if I’ve got another email come through. Is that bad? That is bad.” Returning from work at the end of the day, she would take her laptop out on the deck with a glass of wine to answer her email, which was “kind of unwinding while still doing something.” Susan was an archetypal multi-tasker. She answered email while watching TV and even when she was in bed.

Susan had decided to stay home one day a week to spend time with her boys and cut down on the time they were in childcare. “Someone said, why don’t I cut down my work to four days a week? I said, well, I do more than five days a week work anyway, so why should I not be paid for it?” She didn’t feel guilty about spending the day with her kids, because she knew she would make up the time later. On her home day she used the time the boys were sleeping to do essential work: “They’re only little for so long and I don’t want to have them in care all the time, and I know I miss out on seeing all these little milestones being achieved.”

Susan was finding that one of the few things she could do while the boys were awake was “answer small emails. Sometimes I can mark some assignments and do a bit of searching on the web. Anything that requires full concentration, I have to wait until they are asleep.” The arrangement was “a bit of a holding pattern,” she says. “I’m doing my job and I think I’m doing it well but I’m not extending myself to the point where I could see myself moving. If I’m looking for a promotion in the next year or two, I wouldn’t be thinking about that until I could really put more than my 100 per cent in.”

Susan’s perception that she would need to put in “more than my 100 per cent” reflects a judgement about the kind of work rate expected of full-time employees in her industry. “I think that probably towards the middle of next year I’ll have to face the reality that if I want to move forward in my career, I really have to be here every day.”

Dilemmas like these were a recurrent theme during research for the Working From Home study, funded by the Australian Research Council, which began in 2007. The project set out to investigate technology’s impact on the lives of employees in the information and communication spheres of the “knowledge economy.” To gather material for the study we chose four large organisations – in education, government, broadcasting and telecommunications – and recruited twenty-six people, whom we interviewed each year for three years, where possible, to track their working lives. We found that the relationship between work, home and technology was complex and often fraught.

The study took place during a period of considerable social change. In politics, a federal election with a strong emphasis on workers’ rights saw the Labor Party triumph in 2007 after twelve years in opposition. Soon after, the global economy turned violently downward, pushing Australia from prosperity to near recession and bringing unprecedented levels of national debt. Meanwhile, evolving communications technology facilitated the tremendous interest in social networking sites, from MySpace to Facebook, and then the surge to Twitter. In the final year of the study, the release of the iPhone in Australia changed the communications landscape once again.

Our interviews revealed the extent to which these new technologies encourage the tendency among salaried professionals to put work at the heart of their daily concerns, often at the expense of other sources of fulfilment and intimacy. The growing attraction of mobile communication devices is one of the strongest indications that a substantial number of people see paid employment as the most compelling demonstration of virtue, accomplishment and self-identity that society makes available. With a range of online subcultures developing in support of these tendencies, a mutually reinforcing cycle of chronic connectivity has developed among professionals at each level of the workplace hierarchy.

ONE of the major hopes for remote-access computer technology was that it would solve the problem of the “absent father” – the parent whose work prevented the experiences and pleasures of watching children grow up. Today, professional demands affect both parents, and while technology may allow them to be present in the home, many are working even when they appear to have left the office behind.

Miranda, a telecommunications employee, was one participant in the study who described her frustration when her husband works at the dinner table. “The only time I find there are issues from a household relationship point of view,” she said, “is if my husband has the laptop at the dinner table, which he has done in the past and I’ve gone off my nut… I give him the raised eyebrow and put a stop to that one. But he does it from time to time.”

Miranda’s husband was the deputy principal of a local school, which meant he sometimes needed to be on call. Checking emails at the dinner table is something he did more often “when there’s a bit of stress at work.” But Miranda would ask, “What’s twenty minutes? Unless someone’s died. And even then they’re dead, so twenty minutes isn’t going to make a difference.” On these occasions, with her dad proving unresponsive, Miranda’s daughter would talk to her mother during dinner, and that’s when Miranda would “put my foot down and tell him to put it away.”

Like many of the women in our study, Miranda preferred to use technology in areas shared with other members of the family – in her case, the dining room. As she explained, “This is like the centrepiece of the household, this dining-room table.” While her daughter did her homework at the table, Miranda would be in the kitchen making dinner. “Then I’ll come over here and sit at the laptop and I can work, email, do whatever I need to do. And she’s there and she can ask me questions, ask for help.”

Barbara, a head librarian, also worked at the dining-room table, a preference that had developed early. “I think lots of people use the dining-room table or the kitchen table to study,” she told us. “I feel strangely uncomfortable at the desks upstairs. I mean, it just isn’t my workspace.”

Men, by contrast, often have a dedicated office away from the rest of the house. Miranda’s husband used his study “as a place of escape, especially if he knows there’s work to be done in the house.” Clive, a university professor, also confined his work to one room that was “slightly isolated from the rest of the house.” Clive’s teenage children used their laptops in other rooms, and even in bed, to his bewilderment. “Marjorie would divorce me if I did that.” In contrast to Clive’s large, self-contained study, Marjorie had a desk and computer set up in their bedroom.

Clive described his use of technology at home as “almost a hobby.” In these relaxed surroundings, Clive felt more comfortable blurring the lines between work and leisure: “So if I’m doing an email here and then I slip into Facebook and do a quiz on books or something – in a way, I suppose I play with technology more here than I would at work.” A recreational element enters the equation as wireless connectivity makes the business of work effortless. “I think we’re all sort of habituated to working at different times,” said Clive. “I think that’s the very bizarre piece of it. When you’re home, it’s a bit like the equivalent of doing a model railway or being a stamp collector in the past, or something like that.” The downside was a sense of physical isolation among family members dispersed across the house.

CLIVE’s experience is one of the happier examples of working from home, partly because his children were older and partly because he was relatively senior in the university. By contrast, a number of other parents in the study reported struggling to finish work because their children required more interaction at home. In Tanya’s case, her part-time status meant that she could finish her formal day at the library mid-afternoon and pick up her children on the way home. These shorter days fitted the school schedule, and sometimes Tanya stayed home entirely if her kids were sick or needed transport to appointments. This flexible arrangement was the backdrop to her tendency to finish off a report or check her email at home if she felt she was falling behind.

“Because I work till 2.30 to get the kids, I’ll often have a five o’clock deadline for something so I end up coming home and then finishing something,” she says. “I don’t always do it, but just every now and then it will involve doing a report. And then it’s the case of trying to compete with limited space with everybody else.”

Tanya recognised that “there’s not the explicit expectation that I’m going to do that, it’s more up to me I suppose.” She acknowledged that she has discussed her extra home work with her partner, who “doesn’t think I should be working when I’m not getting paid for it.” She told us that these tensions often arose when she wanted to work in the home office and her partner needed to be online as well. Tanya saw it as “really imperative” that her husband, as a small business owner, was available online. “So yeah, it is a bit difficult sometimes. But just occasionally I just really have to do something and I will throw everybody off, but then that just puts my husband back with his work, basically.”

Wireless broadband was the technological advancement that helped the family stay online and be together. Like several other working mothers we interviewed, Tanya used wireless to stay connected online and maintain involvement in other things happening around the house. Tanya described this shift in the dynamics of the house as “a double-edged sword.” Wireless allowed her to break free from the confines of the study and move out into shared space, but the quality of interaction seemed to change in the process. “You’re with the family but you’re not kind of thing.”

A number of parents in the study shared Tanya’s sense of partial presence in the company of family when combined with online connection. In her words, “It feels nice and superficially it looks like everybody’s a bit more involved together, but probably the reality is not.”

Geoff, an IT manager, registered a version of this experience. He and his wife Linda, a software engineer, had two young daughters. Linda’s work often involved long hours on urgent projects with fixed deadlines. In some cases this meant working from home until as late as three in the morning to get a job done. Geoff saw this as one of the negatives of online connection at home, although it was better than Linda having to take a taxi to work because “she’s able to do it here and then just go straight to bed.” In the binge culture of this kind of work, location made little difference to Linda’s working hours. Despite her presence in the house, she was inaccessible to her family during these times.

Geoff’s job at a university generated home-based work of its own. He was obliged to respond to crises during the workday, and commuting to different branches of the university took up time between jobs. This didn’t leave him enough time to answer all his emails at work – there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Most nights, rather than stay late at the office, he spent time answering emails at home.

On the surface, this arrangement might seem like a testimony to technology’s flexible benefits – giving Geoff the freedom to leave work and still keep up with his employer’s expectations. But it’s not as flexible as it might seem. Geoff answered his emails upstairs in the home office, away from the family; his daughters, meanwhile, “have kind of learned that they don’t come near me really if they know I’m doing something.” He worries that TV and the internet “have basically taken over in our house as the primary means of entertainment and interaction.”

A degree of exhaustion pervades Geoff’s description of family life. He was genuinely worried about the amount of attention he could give his kids, and struggled to generate the energy to engage with them after a long day of work.

Donna, meanwhile, was trying to limit the amount of work she did at home. “But if it’s going to make my life easier the next day at work it’s worth it,” she added. We can get a glimpse of the intensity of her work – as a project coordinator in a government institution – in the way she described the difficulty she has in adjusting to being home. “I spend maybe an hour trying to get in my head, ‘now I’m home.’ My work’s still very on my mind.” The days she spends working from home involve less of a transition: “I don’t have that whole, ‘Well, I’m home from work, I’m stuffed, I’ve had the journey…’ It’s a little bit softer.” Some things helped to ease the adjustment on arrival home from work: “I have a glass of wine and sit on the couch and I just stare at a wall. I put the TV on but I actually don’t watch it.”

During the course of these interviews Donna reported that her daughter Chloe spent a lot of time on the computer. At one stage, Chloe was taking days off school to use the internet to talk to her online friends. “She wanted to visit them when we were up in North Queensland. She wanted to stay with them! Never met them, considered them to be friends.” Donna thought Chloe seemed depressed and withdrawn. She took her to see a counsellor, who diagnosed an internet addiction, estimating that “90 per cent of the kids she sees have internet addiction.” In light of the range of comments from the study’s participants who diagnosed themselves as addicted to email and other online platforms, this seemed crucial. Is internet addiction less of a problem when it affects adults and relates to work? If so, why?

The second time we met Donna, during a period when her workload had noticeably slowed, it became apparent that Chloe’s depression may have had other causes. Having taken some time off for a holiday, and facing a less hectic workload, Donna had started to reflect on the amount she had sacrificed to stay on top of her job. “I think my daughter could have done with me a little bit more at home during sort of Year 11 and 12,” she said. “But now it’s almost too late, she’s finished Year 12, and she’s working herself and doing similar hours that I’m doing.” Donna continued: “I think she could have really done with a lot more support at that time… But my partner works a lot of night shift and he does a lot of hours every week and usually has twelve- to fourteen-hour days and sometimes seven days a week. So it’s not like he’ll notice, because he’s not there either.”

One of the factors Donna acknowledged to be driving her long hours at work was the bond she’d made with one of her colleagues. “The other person I worked with was very passionate and a workaholic with, you know, no partner, no children… a single person, a career-minded person and she was fantastic. We just drove through everything.” She admitted that “if I had to work with her again I’d probably end up doing the same thing.”

CONTRADICTIONS like these highlight how work-based relationships generate their own kind of intimacy, with accompanying benefits for self-esteem and motivation. In Donna’s words, “You’re enjoying what you’re doing and you’re running on adrenaline.” For a number of people we interviewed, work was a source of fulfilment that rivalled family life. It took priority to the point where other relationships could sometimes be neglected.

Clive was one study participant who noticed the potential consequences of such a shift. Working from home, “the positives are also the negatives. What is it doing to relationships and what is it doing to interaction and conversation? Is it really meaning that when I come home, the atomised reality of work becomes an atomised reality of home?”

Despite a lot of good intentions, the quality of home life is irrevocably affected by attention-seeking technologies. Indeed, in many cases, online devices appear to be as demanding and compelling as children. Meanwhile, the next generation of workers grows accustomed to providing entertainment for themselves by way of the same devices. The long-term effects of these changes are yet to play out, but we can already see the challenge that online connectivity poses to cherished ideas of domestic fulfilment. As Clive concluded, “It’s so immediate and so visually stimulating. Why would you want to exchange it for cornflakes?” •