The Insufferable Smugness of Working from Home

A spectacle pedlar showing his wares to an old woman
A woodcut of a spectacle pedlar showing his wares to an old woman. As many work from home during the pandemic, others are called on to serve that privileged population. (Image: Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0)

Back in the day, I attended one of those schools where male character was thought to be formed by endless afternoons of athletic activity. For the less gifted among us, the charm of dozing in the sun when not required to bat in a game of cricket was more than outweighed by playing rugby on a freezing winter afternoon, especially when the cows had only just been moved off the field… One of the privileges of the sixth form, however, was to be allowed to opt out in favor of a hiking group that would have long walks in reasonably wild country on the edge of the North York Moors. It was a slightly oddball collection of the school’s dissidents, deviants and delinquents but it was an improvement on the cowpats.

The topography of the Moors is that of a plateau that is quite high by English standards – 1,200-1,500 feet (400-450 metres) – with deep valleys (dales) running into it from the north and south. There are, of course, many legends associated with the area and the spirits that are said to inhabit it. One story, though, is both more mundane and more tragic. It concerns a medieval pedlar and a winter night, just before Christmas.

In the days before Amazon, the remote farms and villages of the Moors would buy things that they needed from pedlars. These were men who bought specific goods – pots, pans, tools, knives – at autumn fairs in the market towns and would then walk a regular route selling these goods at each stop. The people in the countryside would know approximately when a pedlar would pass through and be ready to buy from them. The pedlar in this story sold corks, which were needed for sealing jars and bottles of preserved fruit or vegetables, home brewed beer or distilled spirits.
Our pedlar reached the last farm at the head of the dale on a winter day. The weather was closing in and the family urged him to stay the night. However, he was at the furthest point of his route and wanted to make his last calls in the next valley before heading south to his own home for Christmas. Shortly after he set off towards the ridge, he was enveloped in a blizzard. The farms in the next valley never got their delivery that year. When they took their sheep onto the high pasture in the spring, they found human bones scattered by wild animals – with a pile of corks in the middle…

Since the governments of the UK began lockdowns last spring, I have often reflected on that story. The villages and farms of the dales might have a hard life but it was a relatively safe one for its time. Many of the risks were outsourced to the pedlars. They were the people who went on the road in ways that made them vulnerable to the hazards of weather, robbery or injury. They might spend months away from their own homes so that others could stay near to theirs – and one day they might just not return.

As the pandemic enters its endgame, at least in the Global North, there are many demands to continue home-working, by those who can. This can be coupled with many signals of virtue, such as reducing commutes, limiting opportunities for infections to circulate or promoting work-life balance. Nice for those who can do it – but utterly dependent on the modern-day manufacturers and pedlars. Somebody has to make stuff and deliver it. The risks do not disappear: they are simply redistributed.

The home-worker also opts out of their role in the reproduction and adaptation of societies. How is the tacit knowledge of an organization passed on when the only contacts are virtual? Conversations with partners in local professional services suggest that they have recognized the problem. Their new recruits turn to them for solutions to problems in legal or accountancy practice rather than to each other. There is little peer-to-peer learning over Zoom.

More generally, how do you develop a sense of community that controls practice ethics? What cultivates the sense of obligation to colleagues and the organization that may be important in managing client pressures for unethical acts? Where do recruits develop the sense of “this is who we are and how we behave?” How does innovation occur when serendipitous interactions are blocked?

Much professional and service work can be carried out from home. It depends, however, on networks of cultural and relationship capital that it draws down but does not renew or refurbish. It has been interesting to note the growing recognition in Twitter posts that virtual conferences are really no better than material ones for many potential participants with limited economic resources or caring responsibilities. As those of us who study these events have long realized, presenting papers is a very small part of the purpose of a conference, even if it might be what releases some contribution to expenses from an employer or funder.

One of the discoveries of the pandemic has been the hollowness of the claims made by evangelists for the virtual world. In the end, it is parasitic on the material one, impoverishing both those who participate in the moment of crisis but having greater impact on their successors. Intergenerational equity has been a concern throughout the management of the pandemic but its ramifications may be wider than simplistic narratives about disruption of social life and leisure activities imply. Something very fundamental is being eroded and will not easily be rebuilt.

The task of rebuilding will not, though, be made any easier if home-working becomes identified with moral superiority or class privilege. At least the villagers of North Yorkshire appreciated their pedlars, feeding and sheltering them even if they could not, ultimately, save them from the blizzard. They intuitively understood the division of labor and their obligations to participate in a wider economy and society of exchange and renewal. Can we say the same in our time?

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Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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