“A New Availability”
People never worked remotely as much as they did throughout the pandemic. Now, professionals working from home are just as available as when they were working from the office. In many cases, even more. In the end, what is gained and what is lost when work does not require physical proximity?
By Juliana Vaz
The coronavirus pandemic accelerated changes in the working world, making the home office a global reality. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of workers in Latin America and the Caribbean carried out their professional activities from home during the pandemic. In 2019, this contingent was less than three percent. In the span of a few months, domestic space had to be redefined: The home, traditionally providing shelter and retreat, became a theatre for productivity. Meetings at the office exited the scene and conferences on zoom and other video calling apps, which could take place in the dining room, the kitchen, or the bedroom, entered.
No less unusual are working hours. Whether through whatsapp, telegram or email, today’s worker is more accessible than ever before, feeling compelled to be constantly available. For many, such desired flexibility runs the risk of resulting in a total lack of control over working hours. How to react to an email from your boss after dinner, for example? Regulations are not measuring up to the pace with which technological evolution is transforming the workplace, but now we are debating about the “right to disconnect,” which would allow subordinates to ignore professional messages outside of the contractually established working hours, prioritising health and well-being. In the face of possible obliteration of the boundaries between private and professional life, it is fitting to ask: In the end, are we working at home or living at work?
A Home Office Is a LuxuryIn Brazil, however, working from home is still a privilege. According to the Institute of Applied Economics Research (IPEA), 8.2 million Brazilians executed their work duties from a home office during the pandemic, the equivalent of 11 per cent of the working population - a low percentage compared to countries like Germany, which had 27 per cent of its professionals working at home in 2020. The profile of those workers reveals the abysmal inequalities that structure Brazilian society: the majority of whom are white (65,6 per cent), have a college degree (74,6 per cent), live in the Southwest (58,2 per cent) and were employed in the private sector (63,9 per cent).
For sociologist Ricardo Antunes, author of Coronavírus: o trabalho sob fogo cruzado (Coronavirus: Working Under Crossfire), the home office, while having been positive at first, was little by little turning into the “new hell”: “We brought the worst of work into the home, in other words, labour, the act of work in and of itself, and we lost our coffee break, our discussions, the substance of sociability that comes from daily life,” he states. “Because there is a dialectics of work. It is neither solely wonderful nor hellish.”
Women’s Double WorkdayAccording to Antunes, the remote work arrangement tends to stress individuality and make work invisible, creating challenges for the organisation of labour. The women’s workday may also intensify and increase twofold to the extent that productive work - that which is performed outside the home, in the strictly commercial sense - overlaps with the reproductive.
“In a patriarchal, sexist country such as ours, the reproductive work is still prevalently performed by women. So, while working, they are simultaneously doing care work, preparing meals and taking their children to school. And the husband torments her, expecting that domestic tasks, which in the socio-sexual division of work, he attributes to her, in other words, the woman. This has generated an increase in distress, domestic violence and femicide. In academia, for example, women have produced fewer articles than men,” Antunes observes.
A “Just in Time” WorkerUltimately, there is the fear that working remotely is contributing to the lack of protection of workers’ rights, particularly in the services sector, creating a kind of “digital enslavement”: “How to be certain that the home office does not lead to converting the worker with an employment contract into an independent contractor or entrepreneur, a ‘new service proletariat of the digital age’? This is one of the major risks,” Antunes warns.
While the predominantly white and highly qualified minority can enjoy the privilege of being at home, the most vulnerable need to leave their homes and expose themselves to the virus. This is the case for delivery people, cyclists or drivers who work for apps like uber, iFood or rappi, and who are increasingly visible in Brazilian urban areas. We are talking about a “just in time” professional, who works on demand, and does not have a permanent work schedule once there is no employment relationship. This tendency, observable across the globe, in theory provides more flexibility and autonomy for workers, who can choose the hours they want to work. In practice, however, work mediated by platforms is more complex.
“There is, in fact, space for decision-making for workers with regard to how they manage their time. The timeclock that records their work hours at the place of business no longer exists, but that does not mean that they have autonomy,” says Ludmila Costhek Abílio, a researcher at Unicamp studying the “Uberization” phenomenon in Brazil. According to Abílio, there are other forms of control operating in this type of work: “The power to define the amount of remuneration and the criteria for the distribution of work is held by the companies. The Uber driver realises that in a certain region or at a certain time there are more rides for him, at a higher fare, so he starts working on that day at that place. Is this what you call autonomy? Or was it the company’s regulations that led him to work at that time?”, Abílio asks. For the researcher, it is essential to understand the idea of the autonomy of the worker who is platformed like a “self-managed subordinate.” In her view, what is really going on is that work management is being transferred to the professional himself, who remains subordinated to the rules of the app company.
Research indicates that the home office is here to stay and after the World Health Organisation declares an end to the pandemic, the tendency for the public as well as the private sector is going to be to offer the hybrid work arrangement, which combines some days at the office with others at home.