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  • Dr. Kamila Moulaï

“We are all in this together”... The Jamwork Era

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

By Kamila Moulaï

As the COVID-19 spread, routines have been reshaped, questioned, and even dropped entirely for many people.

While some companies are looking out for the chance to return to normal activities and for their workers to come back to the physical workplace, some workers have never been more impatient to get back to an in-person environment where deep work is possible. A place where breaks can involve coffee with a colleague, instead of being prompted by a child calling out for mom or dad to help solve a math exercise just at the moment where a difficult problem is on the brink of solution after 30 minutes of intense reflection.

What if that is not the only reason why you miss your workplace? Beyond the fear and uncertainty that it has brought in its wake, the pandemic has also revealed some practices that had not been visible, although they have been significantly present.

1. A lost no-man’s land

It is hard to put your finger on what we miss most: the ability to be in different contexts, and so to see ourselves in a different light, or the possibility of being with our colleagues without social distancing.

However, one thing is certain: returning to work brings the prospect of restoring the commute, setting a distance between the professional and the private spheres, like a moment of separation. These moments have the unique quality that you are suspended in a kind of bubble, not in one place or the other. In the commute, you are not beset by the constraints and reflections that might await you at home. In these little journeys, there is an opportunity to detach yourself from the challenges and weight of the workday and to disintegrate it.

2. Hide and seek syndrome

If the COVID crisis touches everyone, that does not mean that the consequences of the emotions it generates apply the same to everyone. The sense that we are all “in the same boat” suggests the implicit injunction that we should help keep society moving in these difficult times. This goes beyond essential workers, although they are the most exposed. In fact, it was much more acceptable to be emotionally detached from your profession before COVID context than it is at present. In fact, for people who have not gotten sick from COVID, social pressure to carry on is even greater for those who they feel that they can’t keep going. 

Of course you probably felt the need to take a break during this period, even setting aside the influence of the pandemic. If you have, did you postpone the processing of an email that you received on this legendary day of rest? Although this might be completely legitimate, a slow response could be perceived by others as evidence of your detachment from the social obligation to work. A non-response would seem to attract more attention when those who are not seriously affected should continue as they were.

What were once pure days off have thus become days where you still show a minimal virtual presenteeism, to complete the symbolic charge that appears to occupy us, perhaps more than ever. Moments of breaks have become nothing but a hide and seek game of rest, where you fear being caught pretending not to be behind the screen.

3. Telework: the utopian panacea

Telework is likewise a major part of daily life for any worker for whom carrying out their professional activities remains possible from a distance.

There is already scholarly attention being paid to discuss telework and its effects, and it will increase. We predict that the constraints of this practice, which paradoxically was associated with liberty before the COVID period, will be the focus, together with the contrast with the previous understanding that it gave flexibility and that employers who offered it were being generous, so long as the organizational objectives are achieved.

It is clear that the present state of telework does resemble the conventional idea of it. Many might wonder what work really is in this new, confining context of a health crisis and general uncertainty.

Some politicians are already preparing their societies for a gradual exit from social distancing and containment measures, so it is paramount to return now to what we have recently learned about telework in an irregular context and more specifically to what makes the term telework unsuitable.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines telework as “the activity of working at home, while communicating with your office by phone or email, or using the internet.”

Consider this: A workplace cannot be altered in a simple game of translation, where it would be sufficient to give a worker an internet connection and the technical equipment considered necessary by the employer to meet expectations, as if it was the same as the office. It is obvious that in this crisis, a worker is not a Lego block that fits perfectly into an existing configuration, so long as the contours match. While for a limited period, a displaced individual might faithfully complete the work, when that duration becomes extended, it is difficult not feel that something is missing.

Everyone experiences telework differently when it is forced on them, even workers for whom it is a regular part of work. When working remote, the day is no longer punctuated by a series of activities that fit perfectly into each other, as in the case of someone who teleworks from 8:00 to 12:00, goes to the same small restaurant at 12:30 and then returns home to continue their work. As soon as structures and routines can no longer be reproduced or at least modified within the same conditions, the entire idea of what teleworking as a choice can offer is lost.

Beyond the dimension of choice, however, the configuration of the home during confinement also complicates the equation.

Think of those who worked from home enjoyed flexibility when their children were at school and their partner was at work. The challenge of telework is even greater when you are trying to continue to work with actors who are not part of your usual configuration or your little distant bubble, when practicing telework.

4. Extended and disaggregated worktime for a jamwork era    

If you still think that what you did so far was some kind of telework, then think about it again. We believe that in the context of COVID, telework should be called jamwork. An in the case you are not yet convinced, you should read the next lines...

The post-COVID time will tell us whether a return to the previous normal will make us face that we have drawn more on fantasy than real memory of life in the workplace.

It is clear that during the COVID crisis, working time has both been extended and disaggregated. It is extended in actual duration. Measure the number of hours spent at your computer. It is difficult not to reply to an email you get at an hour past the workday, when your coworkers know that you are still at your desk or at least not far from it.

Confinement also creates disaggregation, caused by the intermingling of two other things: the non-professional obligations that invite themselves into the improvised workplace and the feeling of uncertainty associated with the evolution of the public health challenges and the uncertainty they bring concerning the return to normal of your professional life.  

Think of the parents who now must balance taking care of their child because the schools and daycares are closed with working on a file to be returned by Monday and having to receive a call from their own parents, which may take up time during traditional working hours because, it might be thought, no one is working during the crisis.

The temporal disaggregation of work produces a reversed dynamic: at work, parentheses that are often of limited duration make you welcome considerations other than those related to work, and not vice versa. However, during confinement and unchosen telework, this goes the other way around: your parenthetical life welcomes work interruptions. It is therefore necessary to multiply the parentheses to maintain the feeling of comparable work.

Kamila Moulaï, InstancitY, 2020

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