Tech Cynic: WFH? Barely

Technology has made working from home easier than ever. It's hard to be cynical in these challenging times and yet...

The apparent ease with which some countries have transitioned from an open to a locked-down society over the past couple of weeks has been breath-taking. Technology has helped make that happen, and not just by keeping the locked-in masses amused with games, videos, music, podcasts, books, pornography and other traditional forms of home entertainment.

COVID-19 has done what years of worker wheedling and government incentives have failed to achieve: forced many employers to accept that working from home is a viable solution for most if not all employees. A laptop, an internet connection and a VPN is all that's required to turn an office-bound employee into a productive 'wfh' remote worker. It's been so easy that one wonders what all the fuss was about before the virus forced employers' hands.

At least, that's how the current situation is being portrayed. The truth is rather different. Working from home may sound like a great idea but the reality can be harsh, even at the best of times. Feelings of solitude and loneliness aren't easily overcome, and virtual interaction is only a salve, not a cure. Those with families must take other people's schedules into account, fitting work into the hours during which their children are at school, for example. Motivation is a constant issue. In addition, not everyone has enough home space for a dedicated office room. The kitchen table is hardly a decent substitute.

That's at the best of times, but these are not the best of times. I'm writing this article from a cheap hotel room in Berlin, just 30 metres from home, into which I frantically booked myself earlier today in order to get some peace and quiet so that I could write productively. I've been "working from home" for 25 years but the truth is that for much of that time I've also used co-working spaces, shared writing meetups, other people's offices, cafés, clients' premises, libraries and other convenient venues in order to avoid going stir-crazy at home. The working I actually do from home is mainly admin and communications - emails and phone calls, invoicing, technology updates and so on - not true productive work.

As of today, none of my regular working spaces are available. Everything's closed, even the cemetery in which I'd sometimes sit to ponder the research for an article. I now have two daughters at home from school for the foreseeable future, along with their mother, in a 95m2 city-centre Berlin apartment. It's now impossible to work there, so this is my last bastion of productivity: a cold, sparsely-furnished hotel room in the former East Berlin, overlooking a playground that's empty except for a few kids who have cheekily climbed over the protective barriers put in place only yesterday.

I'm not expecting any sympathy, dear reader. I'm pointing out that working from home isn't as easy as it sounds, even for an experienced lone writer. Distractions abound, especially now. Technology gives us fast internet connections, relatively inexpensive laptops and other tools to allow us to video-conference, share data, work collaboratively and so much more. Yet in spite of this, productivity will be down dramatically for the duration of this pandemic.

That's for the people who can work from home, of course. Many can't. Many have already lost their jobs or will lose them in the coming weeks and months. Hospitality, travel, retail and more: sectors will be devastated and large numbers of people unemployed, many of them for a long time. The ability of some of the population to work from home masks the traumatic cases of those who can't, yet without the latter the economy can't survive.

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