The revolution fizzled.
Telework as a concept goes back to the 1970s. Twenty years later it was being said, “Work is something you do, not something you go to.” The history of work had come, it seemed, full circle – beginning in remote times at home, shifting after long ages to factories, from there to offices, now back home. The office was obsolescent. Withering with it were its attendant nuisances: commuting, office hours, office politics, office etiquette, dress codes, tensions, friction. We’d stay home, work our own hours, wear our own clothes, be ourselves, work better, live freer, be happier.
A slow but steady evolution gathered speed, became a revolution, propelled forward by a global pandemic. The Japanese government urged it on: 70 percent of work should be telework, it said. Telework was the future; the office, the past.
It sparked but didn’t catch fire. The office isn’t dead yet – at least not in Japan. Maybe it’s not even dying. Maybe telework is.
What went wrong? Sociologist Yohei Tsunemi, writing in Spa (Dec 27), cites his wife as an example. She’s an IT professional – a natural candidate for telework, you’d think, but a year and a half of it seems to have defeated her. It just didn’t feel right. At the office you see people around you, you know what’s happening, are part of it. Home alone, she was at sea. She felt unspoken demands being made of her, unspoken expectations she couldn’t interpret or respond to, unseen eyes watching her. At the office, you’d say something to someone or to a group and see from facial expressions and body language how it was being taken. Online communication lacks that element. You’ve no idea what the other person is thinking or feeling. You become anxious, timid, shrinking from saying anything for fear of being misunderstood.
Another problem: she wasn’t moving, wasn’t getting any exercise. She got to the point of seeking medical help, and was diagnosed with mild adjustment disorder.
Telework was supposed to raise productivity. All it raises in fact, says Tsunemi, is work loads. You’re never off the job, he says. That complaint has persisted since the dawn of the online revolution, but office hours, however porous, at least set some boundaries. Private life was tenuous but maintained at least a shadowy existence which telework threatens.
Some, of course, thrive on it. But a reverse trend is evident, Spa finds. Some major Japanese corporations – Rakuten among them – have scaled down telework time in favor of more office hours. Honda has all but abandoned it altogether, resuming a five-day office work week.
How alone with our work do we want to be? How alone is it good for us to be? Much was made, in the early days of the pandemic, of the supposed virtues of online university study. Professors would lecture online to students listening online. It solved the infection problem, and was touted at first as preferable to crowded lecture halls – but is it? Spa points to a steady rise among students of depression and quitting school.
Somewhere there’s a happy medium between the need for privacy and the need for community. We don’t seem to have found it yet.© Japan Today