Lord Mountbatten, Prince Philip’s uncle, once said, “At a certain age, one becomes an observer and is no longer a participant”. And saying it on the TV show, The Crown, counts. As a retiree from the federal government for the past decade, I can certainly understand what he meant. I don’t see myself as a participant in this pandemic. I lost no job. I have no children to home school or elderly parents to take care of. On the contrary, my high schooler finished his three and a half years of independent home studies on March 10, 2020, right before the quarantine kicked in and the rest of the world would have joined him. This observation of mine is focused on the recent mass migration to a home office. The revival of the lockdown necessity to work at home was something I would have thought required no resuscitation. I thought that decades after the concept was born, we would have many people already doing it. I guessed wrong.
From my personal perch, I’d like to tell you about the inception of the concept in my government agency, some thirty years ago. At the end of the Bush One administration, they began making noise about “telework”, as we called it back then. The real interest, however, came when Bill Clinton took office. It was one of the ideas of his very fresh and family friendly administration. Regardless of your political bent, the fact remains that it was Al Gore and Hilary that pioneered the family friendly perks we take for granted today. This “work at home” concept to this newly married woman with thoughts of starting a family, seemed the most amazing job changer yet. It was bold and brilliant. A co-worker of mine and I led the charge for it in our agency. You can say, we literally dragged the powers that be kicking and screaming to this wondrous new way of working. I was a manager at the time and, although not eligible to work at home, I championed it and was given the task of implementing the rules for it.
We walked a tight rope between allaying management’s fear that all employees would do is sit around watching Oprah,and making sure we protected them from supervisors peering into their windows, like so many peeping toms. There were productivity issues and security measures of documents and data to deal with. Our area was responsible for the collection and processing of the duty and paperwork for all imported goods into the Port of Los Angeles. We just couldn’t have checks and papers being lost amongst the sofa cushions. The primitive computers back then made it a daunting task. We could not allow anyone’s home computer to be used. We bought special laptops with Virtual Personal Networks (VPN) that could be dialed into from someone’s home phone landline. No WIFI, no presto and you’re in. Often it took a half hour just to get the VPN to cooperate. Today, I understand VPNs are a pretty sexy, techy thing to have.
In 1995, I was detailed to our Washington Headquarters to work on a project that would last a year or so. For this, I actually did get to work at home two days a week. I believe today, they call it ‘hybrid’ work. In 2001, while on maternity leave with my second child, my boss forced telework on me for two hours a day, so as not to have to hand off a special program I was working on. Technology advances, albeit very slow in the federal government, allowed them to load the network on my home computer this time. I imagine I did what countless moms have had to do these past pandemic months; hand off the baby and walk across the house to the makeshift home office.
In our agency, telework died an unnatural death around 2002 thanks to a new, unsupportive administration. In this case, the Bush apple did fall far from the tree. That old boy network, said, O boy, we’re back in the saddle again! Fast forward to 2010. Obama’s administration wants to know what happened to telework. My boss, snickering, gives me the order to go find people to work at home. By now all the young mothers were gone. Our kids were teenagers and no way we wanted to stay home with them. The older folks in the office turned me down flat, as they weren’t about to spend all day at home with a cranky spouse or totally alone. Here we are a decade later, smack in the middle of a pandemic. Those who were fortunate enough to have retained their jobs in this madness, packed up their offices and headed home to create a makeshift one. And so, with an observer’s ironic eye, I view the resurrection of telework, courtesy of COVID-19. The question, though, is it here to stay this time? With the Elon Musks of the world demanding the return of bodies to the building, who should remain at the dining room table turned desk?
From my humble perspective, the young and single should get back in there and flirt around the water cooler. They need this socialization at work time, especially to find a spouse. The ones who should be left home alone are the families with young children. The benefit of packing your bags, moving out of say, Manhattan or downtown Los Angeles, and raising your children in better school districts and better air is a work perk that should be encouraged at all costs. To the elders still on the job, I say, to each his/her own. Some may need some daily human companionship. Some, like me, who returned to the workforce briefly as a COVID contact tracer, wouldn’t have accepted a driving commute again without a court order. The jury is still out on whether the newly named ‘remote’ workforce will take permanent hold for those who need it most, but then again, the folly of the human race usually moves forward at a backward pace.