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The dreaded post

I stand at my kitchen counter and scarf down an egg bite I just microwaved.  This has been lunch since the start of the pandemic. One minute to microwave, one minute to eat, back to work. And, much of my work life has been like this.  If Evan is home, I stand at the kitchen counter, typing at my computer.  If Evan is at school, I sit in my makeshift office which is also my TKD room, zoom-ready at all times. When I’m in there, I almost never get up. 

Olga shows her zoom set up at home.
Home "office": View of wall and Taekwon-Do trophies.

According to a survey I conducted with Tatyana Deryugina and Jenna Stearns last summer, since the start of the pandemic researchers lost about 50 min of research time per typical workday, and much of the time lost can be attributed to childcare disruptions due to the lockdowns, school closures, and lacking care infrastructure to pick up the slack.  And while fathers worked about 75 minutes less per workday due to Covid-19 disruptions, mothers worked almost two hours less.

But paradoxically many of us have been more productive than ever over the course of the last bizarre academic year.  This was the case for me: I wrote, presented, and submitted more papers than ever before, consulted on a big project for the Gates Foundation, and became an associate editor of a respected journal.  How could this be?  In my case, as the line between working from home and living at work blurred, so had my boundaries.  Almost begrudgingly, I work non-stop, because not working threatens to destroy me with guilt and anxiousness.  Any free moment spent on non-work (self-care, for instance) is “wasted,” because I know it is precious.  Only when working can I justify “plugging my kid in” to the iPad or paying that exorbitant hourly rate for the nanny we shared with another family, as our beloved afterschool program was not available last year.

I marvel at life “before.”  I remember taking a daily lunch break to socialize with colleagues which would routinely stretch for over an hour.  I remember my commute to and from work. And the favorite part of the day: walking up from the parking lot to the academic quad as Wellesley revealed itself in all its rhododendron-lush-neogothic glory.  I looked forward to going to work.  Maybe not always to working, but to going there.  This weird work refuge is long gone.

The sentiment isn’t just mine.  Anecdotally, people in industry, mothers and women of color especially, feel burnt out by the new normal of remote work.  When work can be done any time, any place, it becomes essential that it continually gets done.  My husband told me about “Parkinson’s law” which states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.  It rings true now more than ever.

An additional pressure is that our bosses/supervisors/editors/you-name-its aren’t traveling and taking time off either. And when they are, they are on call and on Zoom – no excuses.  What does it mean to have an “out of the office” reply on your email when you are always “out of the office…” and working?  (I briefly thought of setting my away message to “away from email” when we did finally go on a proper vacation earlier this month, but quickly gave up on the idea.  Who am I kidding…)

As I write this blog post – the first non-work-related one since 2019 – I contemplate how we will all go back to a semblance of pre-Covid life and realize that there is no going back for anyone.  Oh, we can go back to the office, of course. But “the future of work” is uncharted territory.  I hope the powers-that-be chart it wisely.  For example, optimists predict that the increased flexibility that comes with remote work will necessarily advance women’s equality.  This is probably true, on average, as great research shows that inflexible work arrangements have been at the heart of the gender gap in the most male-dominated professions.  But as someone with a “flexible” job – academic – I can assure you that there are pitfalls.  [Excuse me, while my head explodes for the hundredth time, as I am asked by the same family member about how much I’m enjoying my summer “off.”] I am painfully aware that, as soon as someone’s job starts to be perceived as “flexible,” that person will be the one expected to always be able to drop everything and pick up the sick kid, run that errand, do the laundry.  Flexible doesn’t mean “less work,” but it ends up being treated that way.  These perceptions apply more to women than men because of persistent gender stereotypes.   

Furthermore, how we define “flexibility” matters.  Forced work-from-home may hurt people who lack a safe or comfortable environment necessary for being productive and happy.  Similarly, “hot-desking” or “hoteling” practices by companies, if enforced, would rob workers of their designated work space that they could make their own.  (In my case, if I was made to share my desk with others, cleaning it out every day, I wouldn’t be able to continue my healthy lunch practices at work which entail storing non-perishable ingredients in my office.  I would probably end up buying lunch, which would inevitably result in less healthy choices.)

So, why did I call this “the dreaded post?”  Because part of me felt like I shouldn’t write this, because it would seem ridiculous to complain from my position of privilege - having tenure, living with a supportive partner, and having my health and the means to survive in this crazy world. But at the same time, I felt that I couldn’t write anything else before making this acknowledgement that the pandemic has affected us all, in a variety of different ways, and that it’s important to share these effects in order to prevent similar outcomes in the future. 


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