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Are you looking forward to returning to work, after two months of working from home?

If you’re in the minority of the workforce who can do that, that is. If you work in construction, retail, manufacturing or in a hospital, there’s no working from home for you. If you have no job, ditto.

Those of us who can are a privileged minority, even if juggling small children, video meetings and a loud partner also working at the kitchen table doesn’t seem that privileged.

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For those of us who already worked from home, it’s pretty moot. But for some office workers, especially introverts who regard interacting with other people as a kind of nightmarish ordeal to be avoided as far as possible, the pandemic has been a doorway to an altogether happier work life without a crowded commute and the torment of talking to annoying work colleagues.

For the more sociable, who miss workplace interaction, their “work husband” or going downstairs for coffee, not to their kitchen, a return to office normality can’t come soon enough.

To work in a controlled environment like an office is, amongst many other things, a performance. It’s not the real you on display at your desk, but the professional you, a carefully crafted version of yourself clad in clothes you probably don’t normally wear, using language you don’t normally use, with people you might not normally choose to engage with, performing a variety of roles required by the modern capitalist workplace.

As a young public servant, I recall being puzzled by the contrast between the besuited, imperious éminence grise from another department, encountered in an inter-departmental meeting, and the pleasant middle-aged bloke encountered outside work. But it was just the gap between the professional role and a more relaxed self — one that working from home acts to erase, via errant children, intrusive pets or that copy of a lowbrow novel spotted on a background bookcase.

As workers from home await a transition to normality, a debate has sprung up among those lucky enough to regard it as a live issue about the sociological merits of working from home.

Nine’s Michael Koziol, who has been on something of an anti-gig economy kick, recently, attacked working from home as a “cold utilitarianism” that would kill society and its millions of daily interactions. “Let’s resist the instinct of the technological evangelists to lock us up inside forever with nothing but the internet to bring us together,” Koziol urges.

Jeff Sparrow explained that “working from home” is hardly a novel idea and that early capitalism relied on home-based industry. Like many others, he linked working from home to not merely a creeping colonisation of personal life and space by employers but to the greater surveillance opportunities afforded by a digital interface.

Increased surveillance by employers is one of the most commonly discussed aspects of working from home — understandably given the growth in remote working surveillance software during the pandemic. Your boss is spying on you, warned a writer at the hard-left Jacobin mag — “the latest example of how capitalism is built on employer despotism”.

And, true, working from home is indeed consistent with the atomising, individualising force of capitalism. Having undermined all social bonds in the name of profit and economic growth, capitalism surely now seeks to undermine the last vestige of community, the very workplaces in which we gather to be exploited, to dissolve those last bonds between us — the morning tea, the whingeing about the traffic/the trains/the idiots on Level 23, the kitchen chats, the office affairs.

Except, capitalism also relies on people gathering together for work. There’s around 25 million square metres of office space in Australia. Another 1.5 million square metres was due to be added to that in coming years. It is an asset worth over $300 billion.

Much of that office space, and pretty much all new office developments, are highly geared, not with long-term residential mortgage-style lending but shorter-term financing. This ends up making commercial property much more pro-cyclical than mortgage lending — that is, when the economy turns down, commercial property will quickly get into trouble and reinforce the downturn with corporate collapses, loss of jobs in construction and worrying banks into tightening lending standards. Economy-wide recessions start in commercial property.

Then there are the bars, cafes and restaurants that service office workers. Cafes, restaurants, bars, pubs and clubs employ over 800,000 people. Over 100,000 Australians worked in maybe 10,000 cafes, a substantial proportion of which — especially in capital CBDs — are dependent on office workers. Australians, by one estimate, order $2 billion worth of coffee alone a year — separate from other beverages or that slice of banana bread you guiltily scoff at your desk.

Then there are the commercial cleaning services that maintain offices. By one estimate that’s a $13 billion industry employing 160,000 people, usually in low-paid jobs. Then there’s a CBD retail sector that depends heavily on office workers who shop at lunchtime. They’ve already been doing it tough for years.

Let’s not forget the parking companies who charge you an arm and a leg — though, these days, just an arm — to park in a CBD parking spot. That sector earns a couple billion a year.

Shift even a fraction of office workers home and you’ll inflict major damage to the commercial property industry, which may have flow-on impacts on the financial system and the construction industry, and the support services that rely on office workers in CBDs across the country. The cost to commercial property alone would be billions in lost leases, with tens of thousands of jobs at risk in support services.

There are some offsets, of course — people have needed to stock up on their home IT so they can work more productively from home. But a few new laptops won’t make a dent on the massive losses if working from home takes off.

And reducing the number of urban journeys every day would be a significant contributor to the urgent task of curbing our greenhouse emissions. Transport is the third-largest source of emissions in Australia, with cars contributing a half of them. Reducing office use may also have a major greenhouse impact — offset, of course, by higher electricity usage at home.

A 2012 estimate suggested offices by themselves — separate from retail buildings, publicly owned buildings and hotels — accounted for around 1.7% of Australia’s emissions, sufficient that last year the property sector released a plan to reduce emissions from commercial and residential buildings to net zero by 2050.

So, if you like, working from home can be a profoundly anti-capitalist act, one that undermines entire industries built around the unnatural act of regimenting us and packing us into giant buildings to work side by side and one atop the other — one that might even send a systemic shock through the capitalist system if enough of us do it. And in doing so, it might curb the emissions generated by all of us running to and from those buildings and keeping ourselves fed and watered while we’re there.

If you’re lucky enough to have the choice, you be the judge.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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