(This is an excerpt from Bob Mendonsa’s book, Working Choices, now available on the Kindle.)
Having a job means belonging to an organization, which for many people is as close to being a part of a community as they’re going to get.
There are very few opportunities for people to become involved in their society, because they simply do not have the time. Besides the sheer number of hours people put in on the job, we spend a great deal of time getting ready for work, commuting to the workplace and coming home again at night. Who has time for volunteer work, school plays and civic affairs? People want time to unwind, relax, eat dinner, party, have sex, watch their favorite television shows, exercise, surf the Web. Becoming involved in the neighborhood or in local politics is a low priority task.
This loss of local community may be more acute in heavily urbanized areas due to the time involved in commuting, but there are other influences at work here. The corporate cost-cutting moves that began in the 1980’s requires people to put in more hours, largely because the efficiencies that new technologies promised were often no more than wishful thinking. It now seems odd to watch movies from the early age of computers (like The Desk Set with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) and realize that people were afraid of losing their jobs to computers. While this sometimes happens today, it is just as plausible to argue that computers and other new technologies have created more work for people because of the inherent problems and possibilities associated with having them. One thing is certain, though: the life of the average person revolves around the workplace—not the church, not the town hall, and not the neighborhood drinking hole. Our work has become our lives.
Therefore, workplaces play an important role in human society by providing some form of community and regular human interaction to the average person who may not get it otherwise. The workplace is where we celebrate birthdays and new babies, where we commiserate about divorces and deaths in the families, where we watch each other develop and mature. Along with marriages, workplaces provide us with those dwindling opportunities for getting pissed off at someone and making up later. We make friends in the workplace and often find that our social circle consists largely of co-workers. Often we meet our mates in the workplace, despite the best efforts of legal and personnel professionals to stamp out romance in organizations.
Oddly enough, though, many workers do not appreciate this unique opportunity provided by the workplace and would much rather work at home. Part of this has to do with the avoidance of commute, of dress codes and of office politics; much of it has to do with the fact that the home sometimes offers a better venue for actually getting one’s work done; some people simply don’t like their co-workers, particularly those who have allowed the dysfunction of the workplace to render them dysfunctional as well. Some people like it because it allows them to remain closer to their children.
If we all become telecommuters, though, we will need to come up with something to replace the loss of community, for the Internet is no substitute for face-to-face contact. And as unpleasant as other people can be, experiencing them as real human beings instead of as meaningless abstractions is the only chance we have to truly understand them.