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Article
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Work

Locked down, freed up: experiences of time by remote workers in lockdown

‘We have today again. And then we have today again. And then we have today again. But we never have tomorrow.’ As part of research project, in mid-2020 I met via a computer screen with Tiffany, a mother of two young children and pharmaceutical consultant, and asked how her experience of time had changed during lockdown. Frustrated by an absence of linearity, she described to me how time had taken a circular form.

Across a series of interviews, I asked a small group of parents this same question. Like Tiffany, they each described ways in which time had changed. It was never static: at moments it was intensely pressurised, at others it was slow and dragging. There were moments of chaos and disorientation, others comforting and free-flowing. Paying attention to how the passage of time is perceived, in particular its abnormalities, can allow insight into changes in our society.

Since the first lockdowns, one significant social change in white-collar professions has been a large-scale shift from office-based work to remote work from home. Two years since Covid-19 was first detected in Australia, many people in these professions have come to express their preference for some degree of flexible work, a pattern that seems likely to continue.

In Western social theory time is regarded not as the passing of minutes on a clock, but rather as individual and collective experience. Anthropologists Alfred Gell and Nancy Munn have provided useful explanations for how this experience occurs. Both these theorists build on the fundamental idea that experiences of time are integrated in the way we perceive and act in the world around us. Perceiving, in this sense, refers to sensations that we either encounter physically, like taste, touch or smell, or those which are encountered metaphysically, such as feelings, emotions or memories. In everyday life we are constantly perceiving and acting—both on our own accord as well as in relation to those around us. The series of perceptions that we accumulate are essentially what we identify as time.

For Alfred Gell, without some sort of reference these perceptions would be scattered and meaningless, kind of like plotting points of a blank sheet of paper—no doubt, a confusing way to live. He conceptualises therefore a second element of time, which he calls ‘B-series’ time. B-series is true time: it is objective and determined, understood as pure description of causal events. Human beings do not have direct access to B-series time, however we do use it as reference point for our perceptions.

As a simple way to think about it, if perceptions are plotting points, then B-series time is the plane to which they are referenced. Through the process of referencing perceptions to B-series time, we form what Gell calls ‘time-maps’, which refers to the way we understand and navigate time. Let me clarify with a quick example from my own life. I work as labourer on a building site. Recently, I was doing a job that required me to nail lengths of timber together. The working day, 7.30am-4.30pm, is my interpretation of a B-series period (I have no access to the actual B-series period), and the time-maps I formed, the way I navigated time, partially included the amount of timber I could nail together throughout the day.

Of course, our time-maps are never fixed—they are constantly updated and arranged in response to events. In respect to this, Nancy Munn theorises that we sequence our actions, both individually and collectively, in order to create certain experiences of time closely related to our understanding of purpose. In this way, we demonstrate agency in relation to how time feels. Returning to the example of the building site: if, while nailing timber together, I had been called away to help resolve an accident, but I still wanted to finish the nailing by the end of the day, I would have to pick up the pace in order to complete the task.

Conceptualising time both as time-maps and as time agency, we can start to unpack what causes time to change, the ways time is reshaped, and who experiences changes in time. This can allow a better understanding of which of our values are at conflict when we act, how social preferences emerge, and the social inequalities that derive from the uneven distribution of time.

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The primary purpose of my research was to ask how work routines had changed since my subjects— eleven parents who had been working remotely full-time whilst caring for children during Melbourne’s first lockdown—had started working from home, using time as a way of framing and tracing these changes. Most parents described time during the first weeks of lockdown as pressurised, chaotic and completely out of their control. Over time, however, they began to adjust, and the way they perceived and acted toward childcare and work changed. They were better able to fit work around the unpredictability of childcare. Julie, the mother of a ten-year-old, described how she would perform simple tasks at the start of the week while her son required more attention, and then more complex tasks towards the end of the week when he was able to self-entertain. Another participant, Jake, recounted how by prioritising the care and attention of his ten-year-old, he learnt to put work tasks aside until he was more capable to do them. As he told me:

It completely re-jigged the way I would work. I was hardly getting anything done during the day, which was fine. I didn’t mind it. And my boss didn’t care because he knew how much I could get done. Work became less time-based and more task-based.

During this phase, most parents described a stabilisation of time, distinct to the chaos and uncontrollability experienced previously. New time-maps were formed, shaped to a purpose—to support the needs and desires of their children—and as a result, they navigated time with methods and techniques that enabled them to complete their work alongside the distractions of childcare.

What emerged from all this was a preference towards remote work. Back in mid-2020, I was hearing for the first time how most of these parents had already considered an adjustment to work from their pre-COVID norm, including negotiating fewer hours, increasing flexibility, having the option to work from home, and, more generally, setting time aside for their children where they had none before. Almost a year later, this preference was being voiced more broadly, and has since led to some significant changes to employment conditions. In Victoria, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission provided recommendations to how workplaces can embed flexible work within their ‘new normal’, highlighting particularly the role of remote work in facilitating a gendered equality of childcare. Around the same time, the Victorian Public Sector released an updated policy in relation to embedded flexible work, allowing all workers to negotiate flexibility around a minimum of three days a week at the workplace.

Prior to Covid-19, some workers could negotiate flexible working conditions. However, this ability depended on how long you had been with your employer, on our individual working arrangement, and your ability satisfy to provide a reason—such as having to provide care. The broader acceptance of flexible work can therefore be seen as significant improvement to workers’ rights. However, enjoying this right remains an unattainable privilege for many.

This leads to a final aspect of time analysis—the identification of how time is distributed. The parents I interviewed had access to certain class privileges, including financial stability, a comfortable home to live, educational opportunities and office-based jobs. For many others, the slightest increase in work flexibility are often out of reach. Flexible work must be extended to the non-remote workplace. At the very least this would involve undiscriminated access to flexible scheduling, options for reduced hours and a degree of agency in rearranging one’s shifts. These alternatives will require employers to rethink the coordination of labour, and employees to adopt new methods and techniques of working. At first this might be uncomfortable, but new time-maps will form, and soon new behaviours will set. Only then we might regard the extension of flexible work as a silver lining of the pandemic.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Sam Scott is a writer and early career researcher living in Melbourne. His interests include time and performative memory.

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Comments

  1. This is a really great article, and the last paragraph in particular is an antidote to some thinking which has occurred on the left throughout the pandemic, which basically said remote workers should get back to their physical workplace, almost as an act of solidarity with non-remote workers.

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