One of the effects of the pandemic crisis ascribable to Covid-19 has been the home detention of almost half of humanity. The eventual onset of such a scenario would have been judged more than improbable only months or even weeks before measures of confinement were promulgated. The result of the confinement has been to compel a large segment of the working population to invent a new way of working which most are unaccustomed to. If numbers circulating on the Internet are to be believed then some 40 percent of those in the French workforce are presently engaged in teleworking during the period of confinement. This forced experiment has given new momentum to the history of the ways in which people organize their work.
Without going into detail on those benchmarks of what in the early 1980s was called a particular form of employment (alongside temporary work, provision of manpower by one company for the benefit of another, etc.) I would like to start by recalling that the first thoughts on the subject date from the early 1980s, teleworking having been conceived as a specific tool adapted to a policy of territorial development. Working at home, whether full-time or part-time, was regarded as a means of supporting those rural areas which were undergoing desertification. Moreover the advent of distributed data processing may have seemed promising in a period when people began swearing by flexibility as a condition of economic performance. But it would be several decades before the formula would begin to take hold. The French labor code first introduced a definition of teleworking in 2012 while laying down its conditions of use. Ever since then the resort to this organizational form has had a bit more success. In 2017, 3 percent of French employees made use of it at least once a week, and this figure was 10 percent for executives.
Teleworking introduces a key feature which dissolves the boundaries between the domestic and professional space in ways which vary mainly according to gender and class. The differences can be explained by reasons related to technical matters (the type of computer equipment available), life circumstances (floor space) and gender habits (men more easily lend themselves to confined professional spaces within their domestic universes). As we shall probably later see in reading surveys conducted on the subject during the period of confinement, the crisis (like in other spheres) will have only magnified already existing inequalities.
But during this time of teleworking’s forced promotion there is something else to be underscored which is of even greater interest – not to say even more astonishing. With emergence of the coronavirus crisis there are now two driving forces at work which could completely transform the future face of work. The first of these, to which I have already referred, is the increasing erosion of the opposition which exists between the professional and the domestic sphere. We already know what its consequences are, for instance the propensity to work longer and more irregular hours. In particular this radically calls into question one of the criteria of classic sociology (starting with Max Weber and then followed by Talcott Parsons) used in characterizing our modern age as well as in specifying even more precisely those conditions of maximum efficiency under which contemporary capitalism operates. While the teleworking trend continues, the systematic implications of such a drastic change have yet to be assessed in their entirety.
The second driving force is even more surprising. Up until now the potential for professional mobility, the possibility of traveling frequently and to remote places, the use of networks and the like were portrayed as a privilege mainly held by those in the upper echelons of society – by the “greats,” to use the phrase of Luc Boltanski and E. Chiapello, who have theorized the unequal capacity of people to move about in today’s world. But the coronavirus has abruptly reversed all of this. Those people who are best provided with resources of all kinds have remained confined to home and have brought attention to the use of teleworking, whereas others have been unable to benefit technically from this interior exile. Furthermore, so as to assure the most vital functions of our society, from care for the sick to daily waste management, mobility has been imposed on those hitherto invisible people without whose assistance the virus would have completely gained the upper hand over our social lives or our lives plain and simple. Hence a spectacular reversal has taken place: with erosion of the borders between the domestic and professional spheres, sedentarization has suddenly become a discriminating privilege, and the possibility exists that it will remain in place even after we have tamed – whether on a long-term basis or not – that virus which has run us all to ground.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michel Lallement holds a professorship in the “Sociological Analysis of Work, Employment and Organizations” at the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (CNAM) in Paris, France. He is a member of the “Working Futures” Network at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.
More articles of the series "Wiko Briefs - Working Futures in Corona Times" can be found here.