Cast in one light, the past year has been a triumph of technology and human ingenuity. We have collectively proven society can still function — money can be made, national security can be preserved — even when we work on independent islands connected by overburdened WiFi networks. We have prevailed over Zoom connection SNAFUs, paired pajama bottoms with button-downs, and learned how to anticipate a child’s urgent demand for attention so we can hit the mute button with seconds to spare. We have used the time we put the time we’d spent commuting to our jobs to be at our jobs, and the “this could have been an email” trope has largely proven to be true. With all that we’ve learned, could the future of work pivot to being largely virtual? Yes, if we first acknowledge and address the hidden and inequitably dispersed costs and avoid swapping one basket of problems for another.
I have now worked from home for over a year and, owing to the — literally — structural limitations of my living environment, it has been a mixed blessing. The loss of the normal ways one marks the passage of time during a workday — putting on a suit, commuting to the office — has erased all lines between work and not work. Everything does double- or triple-duty in our two-bedroom apartment: my husband’s office is our bedroom and my office is our dining room (only our son retained his bedroom for its sole purpose). Our work is always in eyesight, shrinking the distance between work reading and pleasure reading; work computers and personal computers; work files and personal files. I’ve noticed that this lack of separation affects my brain chemistry. I experience no surge of adrenaline upon getting to my office. I get no mental release from packing up at the end of the day and going home. Workdays and weekend days are in the same color family. It’s all twilight.
When the pandemic ends and my husband and I return to an office environment outside the home, much of this stress will resolve for us. But for those whose work will remain fully virtual — whose companies took the opportunity to save money on overhead and shut down their offices — it will not. And remote work isn’t for everyone. For a species as social as ours, we lose our marbles when we go too long without in-person social interaction. Loneliness has been a real problem for many this past year. We overcorrect to a fully virtual working world to the detriment of our mental health.
The mental health tax of working from home is lighter for those with private space to dedicate to work, inextricably linking the housing and the wage gap to the future of work. Space costs money.
This has consequences for the national security field, where people work on challenges no one has yet solved — climate change, competition with our adversaries, the future of technology. The flexibility of remote work needs to balance with the productivity that comes with being physically proximate. No one can solve these problems alone, either literally or figuratively, and — critically — no one should: the problems we face are too complex for silos. Without easy in-person access to colleagues to give my rudder guidance, my work can sail wildly off-course. Coming out of this isolated environment, I will be as eager to recapture the spontaneity that comes with office life as I will be grateful for the quiet focus that remote work can provide.
The mental health tax of working from home is lighter for those with private space to dedicate to work, inextricably linking the housing and the wage gap to the future of work. Space costs money. The average person in Washington, DC, where I live, makes $69,000. However, the average income needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment, where the second bedroom could be used as an office, is $132,000. Doubling one’s income is big ask for Millennials, the largest generation in the country, who have had to constantly regroup — after 9/11, two wars and two recessions, and now a global pandemic — all while suffocating under student loan debt. And for women, especially women of color who make between $0.54 and $0.90 for every dollar their white male peer makes, the wage gap is more like a chasm. Now ask Millennials to join the government, where they will make about a quarter what they would earn in the private sector. And while a flexible work policy that allows people to work remotely from an area more affordable than DC might solve part of this issue, the unintended consequence could be an even more entrenched set of “elites” who can afford to live near Foggy Bottom or the Pentagon and, seeing each other in person, form the bonds that propel careers forward. “Reimagining work,” especially for the future leaders of national security, has to address inequities in the things that make work possible.
I gave birth to our son in March 2020, the day the CDC first mandated the widespread use of face masks. I ended up working and parenting at home for the following year, and stopped regularly leaving the house. Knowing other working parents with older kids, I think my husband and I have had an easier time adjusting to this new world. Some parents had to reconstruct a well-established routine. Only our plans got thrown in the trash. One day, my parents will meet their first grandchild. And, one day, we will have childcare. Until then, this is our system: I get up a little before 6am, work (job-work) until noon, then parent (child-work) from noon until 6ish. My husband child-works then job-works during those same hours. We fit the rest of our job-work around our son’s naps, in the evening after he goes to sleep, and over the weekend. Housework, exercise, errands, hobbies, personal time, time with each other, and sleep gets apportioned what time remains. If we didn’t have understanding employers who accommodate our unorthodox schedules, this would have been a year of Faustian bargains. Our gratitude is profound and life-long.
The pandemic has finally laid bare that working parents can only fulfill their potential in the workplace and in the home once our society recognizes that childcare is a job and funds it accordingly. It’s a job when a parent (yes, even a mother) does it, and it’s a job when a childcare provider does it. And, after this pandemic, all Americans should be able to recognize what working parents already knew: High-quality childcare is the bedrock of our economy. It empowers mothers and fathers who work outside the home to grow their careers and plow their increasing earnings back into the economy. Parents who are fully present at the jobs that pay them can then be fully present at the job that doesn’t. Workplaces should be more tolerant of working parents’ need to leave work early to pick their child up from daycare. More companies should consider having daycare on-side or subsidizing the cost for their employees. If we want to preserve the best parts of pandemic-era flexibility, infrastructure of childcare needs to be part of the new normal.
The pandemic has been a societal forge, refining our assumptions of what is important to a functional and productive American workforce. We have an opportunity to recast what work could look like in the future. Flexibility is our watchword. If we think it is impossible to build a workforce that can work equally well for bureauphiles and virtual workers alike, remember we also thought it was impossible to conduct national security research from our living rooms. We are vast: we contain multitudes. Let’s put them all to work.
Caroline Baxter is a foreign and defense policy researcher in Washington, DC. Over her career, she has worked at think tanks, the Pentagon, British Parliament, and international NGOs.
The Future of National Security Work is a series of articles that examine the experience of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the future of work once the pandemic has gone. For more in the series, check back here.