Working from home: A historical perspective

Objektion
6 min readDec 31, 2020

Working from home has become the new way of working for many people in New Zealand since we have come out of lockdown. For some it is permanent and full-time, for others they spend a couple of days a week at home. What doesn’t seem to have been considered is the fact that workers fought to have their rights protected, and appropriate work hours and schedules to be maintained. What happened to these movements?

Published on The Objektion Project here.

Photo by ConvertKit on Unsplash

In Turin, a city in Italy, just after the First World War drew to a close, the Fiat car factory changed the way its workers were represented in factory decisions. Workers across Europe in squalid conditions had been fighting for greater representation and control over their working lives, and the way in which they worked; largely against male-dominated office hierarchies who wanted to keep both the money and power firmly in their own pockets.

These workers decided that they would create the role of ‘shop stewards’ — people who were representing the will of the people in the factory in larger decisions (and protests) regarding worker’s rights, working conditions, pay, and more. These stewards soon began to group together and form larger commissions, advocating for the workers in these factories. They negotiated pay increases, overtime bonuses, instead of providing the desired control over such matters to the workers and their stewards. You can read more about this struggle here.

Some four years later, Act no.692, brought into force in March 1923, provided that the hours worked by employees ought not to exceed 8 hours a day or 48 hours per week. This law recognises the State’s role in protecting the work of all citizens. It is also however a cultural law, one designed to ensure that Italians were not spending all their time at work and no time with their families, doing leisure activities, and managing their households. Eight hours per day was deemed the maximum amount of work a person should be required to do each day, and this separation, or division, between work and life was not just an ideological one, but one enshrined in law.

Today’s workers are fighting for similar things in New Zealand — a living wage tied to the real costs of living, gender representation, even the worker’s ability to control his schedule is becoming a more desirable situation amongst our new factory workers of the offices. Wanting greater control over one’s circumstances of work is not new, but the nature of the things today’s workers are desiring to control seems to be almost contradictory to the struggles of the workers some 100 years ago.

Desiring greater control over one’s working time, schedule, and essentially the ‘means of production’ of the 21st century white-collar workers, is a desirable goal. Being able to work when you are most productive, being able to decide when you work and how you work give greater responsibility to the worker, and bring greater productivity and the desire to complete the job well. Worker’s attitudes improve, and we have created a more equal workplace with a greater level of horizontal organisation and leadership. Each can be his own boss, at least to some extent.

When smartphones and portable computers became mainstream technologies, work began to be mixed with home life. The desired separability of the Italian law suddenly was no longer as easy to enforce or manage, as one need not be at work to be completing working tasks. Emails, messages, phonecalls, documents — all was made possible at home, outside of work hours and often unpaid. Yes, many of those who had previously adopted this attitude of bringing work home were executives and those on salaried jobs, whereby one is not paid per hour worked, but rather paid to get the job done whilst working certain hours each week.

Now that even the lowest-tier of our office workers are being encouraged to work from home, their ability to split work from life, and to ignore all the pings and buzzes of work, becomes greatly diminished. No longer can work be left at the workplace, can the struggles and the stress be left at the office to return to on Monday; no, now our workers experience all that at home, and then instead of going to a different place to separate work from life, they instead go from the desk to the couch, with their work email still open in case other workers from home are particularly interested in their current project and need to get in touch.

This seems to have happened without much protest. Those who are welcoming this change appreciate the ability to work from home, the ability to have their work emails on their phone and to be constantly checking them, updated by them, and to never truly be able to detach from work and separate work from life. This is likely because the negative impact of this is less than the time and cost savings from not traveling to work, and eliminate the wasted time of their work days in meetings that didn’t need to happen, and idle chatter that doesn’t help the uber-productive among us.

There are many questions we could ask about just why this change has occurred. One hundred years ago, we were fighting to limit maximum working hours, and keep work and life as separate as possible; today we are fighting to intertwine them as much as possible, and for the flexibility to not even have to leave the house to be able to work. This, to me, seems to be a symptom, or a visible manifestation, of the colonisation of our lives that our economic system is having.

What is meant by this? Instead of having work clearly differentiated from the rest of life, work has intertwined itself with the rest of life’s activities. Not only are we consumers, we are also workers: people who are able to be productive, contribute to GDP, make money, buy things, help others make money, and keep the ‘economy’ going. The more work we can do, the greater our overall prosperity will be — or so the economic adage goes. Despite this seeming simple and easy as a law and as guidance for policy decisions, it is rarely accurate. New Zealand is a case in point: despite our relatively low productivity levels compared to other OECD countries, the large majority of us are not in absolute poverty. This drive to get more work done, therefore, or to do more in less time, is not necessarily going to mean that we earn more, feel better about ourselves, and live better lives.

With the increase in working from home, in a couple of years we might see an increase in cases of burnout, in demotivation from work, relationship struggles, and decreases in productivity as work is no longer able to be separated from home. Workers may realise that they can watch Netflix at the same time as answering emails with unnoticeable but not negligible changes to their productivity, and likely a decrease in the quality of their work. They might start doing other things, as long as they are near their email and phone in case they are needed. And is this a bad thing, if each person can maximise his time and use it to do the things he wants, whilst fulfilling important objectives at work? Or is it just another signal that we will most probably miss, telling us that mixing work and home life is not going to lead to happier, healthier lives, but ones where we cannot tell the difference between work and home, and where our relationships suffer?

Only time will tell how we assess and justify the resulting changes that will occur in our mental states as we increasingly combine work and home life, and begin to work more from home. It would however be wise to remember that people have once before fought against the colonisation of personal life by the workplace, instituting maximum working hours per day. We should not have to repeat this struggle again if we realise what previous generations have fought for and the fact that the values that these struggles believed in are very similar to those we are adopting today.

Jack Goldingham Newsom is the Chief Objektioner and Founder of the Objektion Project. We help people, social enterprises, and volunteer organisations to carry out their mission more effectively by challenging current ways of thinking, and developing new frameworks to support their vision.
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Objektion

I work with imagination and creativity, with organisations who want to create meaningful change. The world needs more thinkers, I aim to be one of them.