The Desk: Work at home during the pandemic

By
Rebecca Empson
Professor of Social Anthropology, UCL


Women of all ages have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. We hear this every day in the media but what does it actually mean (cf. Kemp 2020 a&b, Fazackerley 2020, Ashton 2020, Haynes 2021, Hernandez 2021)? Many women have had to give up work or go on furlough to look after and home-school their children. Or they’ve had to radically change their working hours to fit around and fulfil different duties usually performed by nurseries, schools, childminders, and carers (formal and informal). 

Many women also work in sectors that have sustained closures and redundancies, while others are working odd hours to make up for different kinds of caring responsibilities, something extremely taxing and exhausting, leaving little respite. Suddenly, we have all been confined to a unit called the ‘household’, but the physical structure of this place has been stretched to become a school, an office, and a day care provider.1

During the first lockdown, I was four months into maternity leave with my third child and blissfully unaware of what was to come. Overnight, I found myself at home with my four-month-old, my two-year-old, and my ten-year-old (plus our dog), as my partner worked outside the house. Apart from the fact that I actually wore almost every day what might be termed a ‘house coat’, I have never felt so much like a 1950s housewife in all my life. On top of the practical landscape of juggling cooking, caring, schooling, and household duties, there was an emotional one marked by peaks and troughs. Isolated from their peers, children felt frustrated and confused in the face of technological learning challenges. Parents have had to juggle new relational pressures, and the elderly and sick have confronted new fears. 

Amongst this, as the pandemic has unfurled, and new scientific advice and knowledge about the disease has become available, with every Prime Ministerial announcement, households have been left to make ethical decisions for themselves and for their families, leading to tensions and individual and group dilemmas as to how best to act to protect themselves and their loved ones. Concealing and revealing such decisions has implications. When I gave a lift to a friend in December 2020, I caught Covid, even though she sat in the back of my car with a mask on. When I was in bed feeling sick, my partner sent me what he thought were reassuring photos of my daughters in the local playground. During one home-schooling Zoom meeting, my son spotted the boy he thought he was in an exclusive childcare bubble with doing a lesson at somebody else’s house. When people break ‘the rules’, tensions arise because these actions put not just the individuals doing them at risk; they threaten the whole household, and those attached to it. 

Many rules have changed from the first UK lockdown (March to May 2020) to the third (January to March 2021). While masks have become the norm, wiping products down or leaving them outside for days is now almost a forgotten practice. Vaccines have brought peace of mind and rapid flow and PCR tests reassurance. However, tensions remain as we strive to protect our elders and those more vulnerable members of our communities, as well as those unvaccinated or compromised in some way, and new variants are continually emerging. In this context, many restrictions, including working from home, remain in place. In this short piece I ask: what does looking at something as simple as a desk tell us about the way women and men have adapted to working at home during the pandemic?

The desk

As I found myself about to go back to work (from home), I reflected on my experience over the past year and wondered how to capture how women – and especially mothers – have been disproportionally affected. It occurred to me that a quick way to see how working from home during the pandemic has affected men and women differently would be to visually contrast desks within the same household. I sent a message to a working mothers’ WhatsApp group and a women’s communication network called Bloom. Seeking interlocutors from these groups has narrowly confined the following brief study to (mostly) middle-class professional women with partners/husbands, often living in London, and homeowners, thereby considerably narrowing the perspective.

I asked the women who came forward to send me photos of both their and their partner’s desk/workspace. I noted their ages, professions, where they live, the number of kids (with ages) in their household, as well as some information about whether they’ve been working from home the whole time, or been furloughed, or done some office-based work. I also asked them to elaborate on how they have negotiated their space, structured household chores (cooking, cleaning, looking after kids etc), and any high/low points. 

What follows are the visual manifestations of this practical and emotional balancing act. Of course, I am aware that this is just the tip of the iceberg – that the pictures and narratives contain greater struggles and burdens than we can see. But they do reveal the domestic work of people ‘making do’ in difficult and trying situations – working around and on top of each other, with compassion and care, while also fearful of losing jobs and threats to their physical health. Elly, Cathy, Helen, Amira and Sally (all pseudonyms) have all experienced very different home/work lives this past year, but their stories also point to shared experiences.

Working in the kitchen or kneeling in front of a chair

‘I really think women are having a hard time and nobody realises’, said Sally, the first to respond, ‘I’ll send you pictures, but basically my husband has the best set up in our bedroom and I’m working on the kitchen table. I have my big meetings in my son’s room because normally the washing machine or dishwasher are on and so very noisy’.

‘This is my husband’s desk. He’s adapted my dressing table, added a wooden board and got an additional screen from work. We also bought an office chair because he wasn’t comfortable on a normal chair. His desk is in our bedroom.’

Sally is 32 and her husband is 49 years old. They live in a flat in Willesden Green with their 18-month-old son. Until September 2020, Sally was on maternity leave. She returned to work full time (from home) as a Manager when their son went to nursery. Her husband has been working from home as a Graphic Designer since March 2020.

I can’t work in the same room as my husband as he’s a very noisy co-worker, so I work in the kitchen. In terms of chores, I do the laundry (pretty much every day) and, as I’m in the kitchen and our son’s room, I also do the cleaning and tidying of them. My husband sometimes cooks dinner or lunch

She is the one who looks after their son if he gets sick or is home from nursery and is able to make up any work once he’s asleep, while her husband always keeps regular hours. Working from home has meant spending more time with their son and less time on commuting. However, she misses interactions with colleagues and finds that both her and her husband tend to work longer hours as the life of work and life of home become blurred. 

The loss of jobs and people

Cathy and her husband are in their mid-40s and live in Hackney, East London with their 15-year-old daughter. Right at the start of the pandemic, Cathy recalls, she was made redundant. 

I was made redundant in such a brutal way,’ she explained, ‘I’m still reeling when I think about it […] The feeling of having a job I’d worked so hard at taken away at a time when the world was so scary and uncertain was awful, but it did allow me the opportunity of going out to work in the communications team at the Nightingale Hospital at the height of the first lockdown. That experience was scary and exhilarating at the same time.

Later in the year, when the hospital was put on stand-by, she secured a job at the Department of Health and has had the experience of starting a new job and running a team entirely remotely, pitching to Ministers with a boss she has never met in person. 

‘I set up my desk next to my daughter’s drum kit in the spare room…’
‘My husband took over the bay in our living room.’

Her and her husband bought trestles from Ikea and plywood from the hardware store to make their desks, while their daughter already had a small study she could use.

Cathy’s daughter’s desk

Their daughter is older than those of many of the other women I spoke to and she described her home schooling as being ‘very self-sufficient’.

She really just needed our emotional support and to be on hand with meals and snacks! […] I’ve gone from worrying that she spent too much time on her phone to feeling so glad she has been able to maintain her friendships because of it…

One of the things parents reflected, for their older children, is how at the start of the pandemic they had worried about the amount of time their kids spent on screens but as the pandemic and various lockdowns went on, they saw that screen times, especially when playing online games with friends or texting, were intensely social occasions that allowed them to interact with their peers. 

Cathy also recounted moments of tranquillity and togetherness with her daughter, especially during school holidays, when they ‘read and had picnics in our garden and these moments of peace are some I will really treasure.’ But there have also been many low points, among them the constraints of being stuck at home with very noisy neighbours and building works, the death of loved ones (her father died in Scotland and she was unable to attend his funeral in person, only via Zoom), restrictions on caring for sick family members (her brother in hospital and her father-in-law in Australia). After such loss and separation, she echoed a sense that many have begun to feel: 

If this year has taught me anything, it is the fragility of life. I would never have predicted in 2019 that these things would have happened to us. I’ll never take my relationships and time spent together for granted ever again.


Mobile work inside the home

Elly and her husband are 38 and 40 years old, respectively. They have two children – 2 and 5 years old. During the first lockdown, she worked part-time (21 hours over 5 days) and was able to squeeze in those hours around morning naps and evenings when her children had gone to sleep. By August 2020 she resigned. Juggling the work-caring responsibilities became over-whelming. Echoing what many women working part-time while looking after young children feel, she explained: ‘it was impossible to do the hours required without childcare and the wage wasn’t worth it.’ 

Now that her children are back at school and nursery, she has secured a 12-month contract. In fact, this is a job she’s only been able to take because of the pandemic as it allows her to work from home. She doesn’t have a fixed desk but keeps everything in a crate so she can fit in around others.

‘The crate is mine…’
‘The desk is my husband’s.’

Helen is 33 years old and works in finance in a nine-to-five job. Her husband also works in finance, is 34 years old and has extensive hours (from 7am to 7pm minimum). They have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter who goes to nursery. While her husband is the main breadwinner for the family (he contributes 2/3, with her contributing a 1/3), she comments that ‘we have both been working from home for more than a year without interruption, and I don’t know when we will go back to the office.’ 

Before moving into a house at the start of 2021, they lived in a flat where her husband worked in the living room and she worked on a table in the hallway. Since moving to their house, they have had to work alongside extensive building works. She explains:

Initially we were both working in our temporary bedroom in the attic, but working in the same bedroom was very challenging, and also my husband starts his day around 6.30am while I am still asleep.

Helen takes care of their daughter in the morning and drops her at nursery. Her husband collects her around 6pm. Her husband often takes work calls in the evening as she takes care of their daughter and qualifies the extra childcare and household duties, including all cooking and laundry, as due to the fact that she is not the main breadwinner. 

‘This is my desk, stuck under the roof, with all our unopened moving boxes
around me that we cannot unpack yet.’
‘This is my husband’s desk, more space around to move, but closer to the builders that work in the house
(he has already moved to four different rooms).’

Shift work

During the first lockdown, when all childcare facilities, including schools and nurseries, were closed, Helen and her husband worked and split childcare, something that Amira, the final woman in my sample, also did with her husband. In this arrangement, Helen’s husband worked from 7am to 12pm, while she looked after their daughter. They would have lunch together, and then their daughter would nap while they would resume working. At around 3pm she would wake, whereupon her husband would take over until about 6pm. They would then resume working when she had fallen asleep for the evening. 

At the start of pandemic, 34-year-old Amira, a University Geneticist, explains, ‘we both shared my husband’s desk as we were working split shifts to share parenting and work (5 days a week: my husband was working 7am-12pm while I had our son; I worked 1-6pm while my husband had our son), then when our son returned to nursery, I was predominantly back in the laboratory I work in, so my husband had his desk back to himself. When I worked from home at the same time, I would take out my laptop in the dining room and put it away for dinner.’ 

Now, when Amira works for longer periods from home she does so from her own desk in the same room as her husband’s.  

When there are overlapping meetings,’ she explained, ‘whoever’s meeting is less stressful will take their laptop downstairs.’

Shuffling in and out of rooms, many couples have come to a shared understanding about how to manage their work/home life where certain rules have been established and compromises reached. 


Concluding remarks

In this brief analysis I have found that men’s lives have been impacted by working from home in various ways during the pandemic, and they have had to contribute to household duties and childcare in ways they might not normally do, but consistently, women seem to earn less than their male partners and the continued allocation of more household and childcare duties to them seems to reflect this. 

One might say that the pandemic has actively held them in this position for longer than might normally be the case – juggling work and caring responsibilities more than their partners and for a longer period of time than they would normally do. At the start of the pandemic, many of the women I encountered were in professions that were hard hit by the first wave and as a consequence several lost their jobs. 

When they have been able to keep hold of their formal jobs, women have had to work around – both literally and metaphorically – the physical constraints of the home and its members rather than be allocated a single fixed place. A woman’s desk is often located in a liminal space: a corridor, a portable box, the kitchen table etc., and this multiplicity reflects her multifaceted role within the household. Not just an adult trying to work from home under a global pandemic, but a mother, a carer, a cook, a cleaner, a partner supporting her husband, and also for periods, a teacher. The desk gets moved around, has multiple uses, and takes on different roles, just as the women do. 

In light of this, and following feminist theorists (cf. Bahn et al. 2020), we might note that the traditional notion of work is very limited. For example, a desk says very little about the multiple kinds of work that these women do. If we expand our understanding of what work is, then the desk is just one place for it. As Graeber has shown (2018), the labour theory of value based on production makes a lot of caring work invisible. Most work – both in and outside the home – isn’t about producing things at desks, but about caring for and maintaining them. Bringing a desk-based office into the home has been tricky – it has had to sit alongside the other work of households that is often where the work lies.2

As in other spheres, the pandemic has highlighted more sharply than ever the inequalities that we all know exist, throwing them into relief against a large wall and holding them there for a sustained period for us all to see. Few will pause at this sight and take stock. Fewer still will take stock and try to implement change, but a different future is possible. It sounds like we may be working from home for a while longer, so changes need to take place. 

Recognising the need for flexible working and the multiple kinds of work that people are juggling alongside their formal jobs is one step in doing so. Deciding what is of value and to whom is also important, not just for ideas about productivity but also for the mental health of those around us. Finally, we may ask, is the pay, prestige, and status afforded to some kinds of work reflective of the kind of work we think of as virtuous and worth-while? Now is the time to build the kind of world we want to live in and make the changes we know we need; we just have to make the ethical decision to begin to live as if it’s already started.

Acknowledgements

I am really grateful to all the people who have shared their stories and photos with me. I was humbled to learn about the ways in which they have been managing. Thanks also to Victoria Brooks at Bloom for her impassioned feedback and encouragement and to Julie Moore for her read through.

1 Saadia Zahidi, the Managing Director of the World Economic Forum, is quoted in a Time article by Suyin Haynes (March 2021), as saying: ‘The consumer, retail and hospitality sectors which have sustained many closures are large employers of women. The closure of schools due to lockdowns has contributed to a retrenchment to older behaviours in terms of care responsibilities in many economies… Women, including white collar women who are working from home, are now under a sort of double shift scenario, where they are primarily responsible for care responsibilities in the home, while at the same time obviously working under increased stress in the workplace’ (Haynes 2021).

2 What happens, for example, when we replace the terms ‘chores’, ‘care’, ‘leave’, ‘duties’ with the word ‘work’? Household chores work, child care work, maternity/paternity leave work, household duties work.

  1. Bahn K., J. Cohen and Y. van der Meulen Rodgers (2020) A Feminist Perspective on COVID-19 and the Value of Care Work Globally. Gender Work Organ 27:695–699.
  2. Weissmann, Suzi (2018) The Rise of Bullshit Jobs: An Interview with David Graeber by Suzi Weissman. Jacobin Magazine, 30 June 2018.
  3. Haynes, Suyin (2021) The Global Gender Gap Will Take an Extra 36 Years to Close After the COVID-19 Pandemic. Time Magazine, 30 March 2021.
  4. Hernandez, Francesca (2021) The Covid-19 impact on working mothers. Campaign, 11 March 2021.
  5. Kemp, Nicola (2020a) Coronavirus risks putting creative women’s careers in lockdown. Shots, 8 June 2020.
  6. Kemp, Nicola (2020b) Covid-19 risks turning back the clock on gender-equality gains. Campaign, 7 December 2020.
  7. Fazackerley, Anna (2020) Women’s research plummets during lockdown – but articles from men increase. The Guardian, 12 May, 2020.
  8. Ashton, Izzy (2020) Mummy, what did you do during the great COVID crisis? BITE Focus, 30 September 2020.

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