Any place a workplace

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 08.05.2020

A man wakes up at seven o’clock. He showers, gets dressed, and eats some toast with apple sauce. After catching two separate buses, both of which are running late, he makes it to the office. It’s about nine. He takes the elevator upstairs, hangs up his coat, mumbles hello to a few sleepy coworkers, and sits down at his desk.

Another day at work.

At five o’clock sharp, he shuts off his computer and gets up. “Quittin’ time,” he says to the intern, smiling weakly. The intern gives him an envious look. Oh, to be allowed to leave right at five! Two colleagues raise their eyebrows at the man as he sails past them towards the elevator. Leaving at the earliest possible hour. Again. But the man doesn’t seem to mind being seen that way. To be honest, he has no time to mind. There are a hundred things to do before bedtime, none of them fun. Catching those two damn buses again, sorting out dinner, doing the laundry. Buying more apple sauce. But it’s all right: the weekend is just around the corner.

Is this man a hard worker? Is he busy?

I used to think that national cultures would provide consistent answers to such questions. Americans would find him a bit lazy, Europeans might say he has a healthy work/life balance. The Japanese would be confused by the question, since the man is obviously on some sort of vacation. That kind of thing. But I’m no longer so certain. Sure, culture plays a role, but work is one of those things like money or love, an aspect of life that runs deep in the individual. Down in a dark place where psychiatrists are sometimes invited to shine tiny beams of light.

All this is on my mind because, thanks to Covid-19, nobody’s job is exactly like it used to be. For some – the lucky ones – this means working from home. A divorce from location. Going virtual. Along with this little change, however, comes a philosophical conundrum: what is work, exactly? Checking emails in my underwear, taking a break to chop onions for dinner if these things happen before five, are they part of my workday? Instead of coffee with the coworkers it’s shelling peanuts while blasting hard rock. Instead of polite chitchat before the staff meeting it’s smooching my wife for a couple of minutes. In all cases, I’m not working. Not really. So what’s the difference?

In the olden times, circa February 2020, things were simpler. Back then, work was often understood simply, casually, as a matter of presence. For office workers, like our friend with the apple sauce, you can be diligent or not, ambitious or not, focused or not, smart or not, but – as long as you’re at the office – you’re working. Forty hours in the building equals forty hours’ work. Busy, busy, busy. Even if you waste as much of it as possible relaxing on the toilet, doing stupid little training modules for the company, staring into space. No matter. That’s full-time, baby.

Now, however, presence is disrupted. Nobody can see you in the workplace, so work needs to be quantified in other ways. How was my output today? What even counts as output? Did I concentrate enough? Did I send enough emails? Am I sufficiently stressed out? Honestly exhausted?

And after you convince yourself, you need to convince others.

The real problem is that “work” is too broad a concept. Even if you come up with a definition that suits you, society will probably not agree. The word itself sounds pretty straightforward. Work. Go to work, catch up on work, be swamped with work, take a break from work. People say it all the time. It seems pretty clear. But when you break it down, no two types of work are exactly the same, and no two people find exactly the same meaning in what they do.

Sitting in an office has never meant you were working hard. Or even working at all. Maybe you are, maybe you aren’t. But the physical dislocation from home makes for a fabulously convenient way to split up your worlds. If I’m at the office, I must be working. The clarity is beautiful, no question. But the correlation has always been total nonsense. And teachers and freelancers, who often toil beyond the gaze of others, have always known it.

Before you start – I’ve been a teacher, an office worker, and a freelancer. So I’m licensed to write such things.

Tensions are high in these coronavirus times. Naturally. And I hear stuff. I hear that things are opening back up, schools and offices, that the holiday is over. I heard it just like that. The holiday is over. If being at the office is work, then being home is a holiday, to some people. I won’t say who. Doesn’t matter who. But I find it a really stupid thing to say. As if productivity (if productivity is the point of work) can only truly happen in the sightline of colleagues. Give me a break.

I hope that our society massively transforms its understanding of work after this crisis. I know it won’t, but just bear with me. Work can be physical, creative, theatrical, risky, intense, clerical, monotonous, or simple. It can be taxing on the mind, the body, the emotions. It can be soothing. Important. Pointless. Undervalued or overvalued – by its executor or by society. (Overvalued by both is the worst combination: nothing more infuriating than an overpaid, ego-inflated moron.) I want us to realize that work is a subjective mindfuck, a word so variable in meaning as to be meaningless, a matter for the deepest caves of personal identity, a weapon and a medicine and a chore and a necessity. And that it is exaggerated as much as it goes unnoticed. And that setting foot on some property your employer rents has no bearing on it whatsoever. And that there’s nothing wrong with eating apple sauce on toast first thing in the morning.

Jeffrey Palms
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