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The Unspin Room

Dalton Delan: Is work-life balance 3.0 an industrious revolution?

It’s September, and everything is upside down. Summer is over and the kids are back in school, but many of us are still at home. What a change a few years make!

To see how we got here, let’s dial back long before the pandemic. In agrarian times, before the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the great cities, we lived and worked at home, ranch, farm or close by. Farming, retailing, performing services. Family and community, church and skin, formed and framed our lives.

Let’s not paint these days as halcyon. Caste, gender, injury and disease were limiting and devastating. Life was relatively short. With fewer senior citizens, there was the blessing of far less cancer and dementia. We were born at home and died at home. The human continuum.

By the 1800s, European families began to move into dense urban areas, rife with pollution, disease and crime. Then came waves of emigration by Italians, Irish, Germans, Jews. They left famine and family behind, steaming in past Lady Liberty’s torch. Black people were brought in irons through Charleston to the cotton fields. The ghettos of the early 20th century were home to ersatz communities and work circles. The Irish cop and fireman. The Italian plasterer and painter. By the 1930s, New York had 1,500 Jewish delicatessens. In Spanish Harlem, near where I grew up, a bodega on every corner.

Factories of brick, office towers of steel. Work hives followed Ford’s model. A place for every worker, every worker in their place. Life became bifurcated. Kids were parked in school. Mothers minded the home. Fathers clocked in at nine and out at five. Daytime and nighttime parallel universes. The watercooler, the bowling league, the factory and office formed communities. Men spent more waking hours with strangers thrown together by employ than they did with families and neighbors. During World War II, women joined the workplace ranks.

Back to the future

A few short years ago, one of our key employees moved out-of-state but wanted to keep their job. They used the phone for a lot of their work, and email took care of the rest. Nevertheless, it was a huge debate within the company how many weeks they could go before flying back in for a week at the office. It was an experiment. We soon found that office visits could easily be stretched apart. Yet we didn’t dare change for fear of the company’s wrath. Staff simply had to show face-time. Then I left and went to work remotely myself for an enterprise across the country. I took an office in a shared workspace, lest I had no place to go.

Soon came the pandemic. I gave up my shared space. Cities hollowed out. Home and office slammed together. For retail and service workers, there was no choice but to show up. But for office workers and those who could transact business via email, phone and Zoom, a tsunami had struck. We were washed up in our pajamas.

We set up work in kitchen corners; added virtual backgrounds for Zoom meetings; laughed at kids, dogs and cats sneaking into frame. Home was a refuge for those lucky enough to have worn a white collar, only now no bleach was needed for casual shirts and unseen sweatpants below frame.

Stunning the boss class, a University of Southampton study found that a majority of remote workers felt their productivity had improved. In retrospect, hours spent commuting and gossiping in the halls proved more time-wasting than the new interruptions: walking the dog, corralling the kids, picking up groceries.

When vaccines came, restive bosses began calling for days in the office. Some offered free snacks. Many workers said bye-bye. Bosses backed off or faced attrition. This July, while less than 20 percent of job listings on LinkedIn offered remote work, these ads attracted more than 50 percent of job seekers.

It is early days for this revolution, but for many workers, five days in the office is history. With what effect on teamwork and connection for the next generations? Can you get to know your team just as well over Zoom? There’s less gossip. No bowling. No taco Tuesdays. Yet it is a fit with the metaverse that has been forming via social media for years. For all the worry about young people, many are comfortable in this digital workplace — some even more so than in analog space and time. Those who crave in-person teamwork and camaraderie will seek hybrids. For others, home, which began as a haven, is now heaven.

So now the kids arrive home as if from the office. We meet the bus. Say, “how was your day, dear?” Our battles are fought from the castle keep. At least there’s no after-school cocktail hour. Soccer maybe. Work-life 3.0. Put out the welcome mat.

Dalton Delan can be followed on Twitter @UnspinRoom. He has won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.

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