Laëtitia Vitaud: Home is work’s new frontier

The pandemic has forced us to reevaluate our concents of home and work. Can we reshape our lives around this new vision?

Laëtitia Vitaud is an author and speaker on the future of work. Her 2019 book, Du Labeur à l’ouvrage, offers a fundamental reflection on the transformations of work and home in the digital age, and on the lures of ubiquity that promised us the digital revolution.

In the fourth episode of season two on February 18th, 2021 of What’s NEXT, she explored how the pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate our view of the home and the workplaces, and how we need to plan very differently for a new style of living in the future. You can catch up with Laëtitia and her work on Twitter and her newsletter and read her thoughts in our book The Great Redesign: Frameworks for the Future.

Watch the complete episode

It’s time to focus on the home: so many of us have spent so much time cooped up there over the last year. We used to think of the workplace as something else, somewhere else. But that’s the wrong way to look at the home and the workplace; there are many reasons to think of the home as the next work frontier.

This separation of home and workplace is fairly recent. For thousands of years, people worked where they lived. It was only after the industrial revolution that we started to think of the home and the workplace as separate things. It was also a separation of two types of work:

  • productive work that produced tangible, saleable goods
  • reproductive work that reproduced the workforce, both through maintaining your life and health and through bringing up children.

Productive work is paid, reproductive work is not paid. Even now, doing homework is not counted in GDP. If you iron a shirt, it is not part of GDP, but if you pay someone else to do it, it is.

The idea that work was for production and the home for reproduction was never really true. There were always home-based workers — including domestic workers in the homes of others.

And now, the home as a workspace is making a comeback.

What’s changing our home?

There are four major factors driving the reshaping of the home, according to Vitaud:

1. The Pandemic

Almost overnight, between 30 to 40% of workers started working from home. The number of hours worked from home went up tenfold. No-one was prepared — workers or managers. But it happened, and all the obstacles used to justify preventing people from working home were overcome. Few people want to return to work full-time.

2. The She-cession

The pandemic has impacted women disproportionally. Companies have laid off women — or the women themselves have paused their jobs because the childcare facilities were closed. The work of even the most successful women was dependent on other reproductive workers. It became apparent that the home was a place of unpaid work. 2.5m in the US quit their jobs because of a lack of childcare.

3. Housing became a matter of life and death

People literally died due to bad housing doing the pandemic. Poor housing conditions are never good — but in the pandemic, they became a disaster. People who had to continue to work outside their home in proximity services tend to also live in substandard homes — this double problem of continued outside work and poor housing explains the disparity of death rates in some places.

4. The Mental Health Crisis

The pandemic increased stress, depression and loneliness. People are challenging the loneliness of the “normal” home, because of this. We regard it as normal for young people to make it on their own, and move away — but we’re seeing a return to multi-generational households, to combat loneliness and social isolation.

We designed our institutions around the ideal nuclear family, but increasingly it’s in the minority. In the US now, a majority of under-30s live with their parents. That’s a dramatic change. We’re seeing the nuclear family as a trap — a mistake.

Reasons for hope in the crisis

Those are the factors driving change, but some emerging outcomes are already looking positive. Here’s what Vitaud thinks we can build on:

1. Geographic redistribution

People are already relocating — in the US it’s now visible in the prices of homes. NYC house prices are dropping. Superstar coastal cities are declining. The new archetype of the super-commuter is someone who chooses to live further away from the office because they will only have to go into the office once or twice a week.

Affordable secondary cities are stealing a march on their expensive cousins. This could make life easier for the proximity workers in the big cities.

2. Home investment

People are investing in their homes, to improve them as places to work. In London, people are putting garden offices (sheds!) in to allow them to commute across the garden. Others are buying chairs, desktop computers or desks. Some are moving for the extra space. They are preparing for a future with more home working.

3. Households are changing

The burden of parents with young children — or young people on their own — was unbearable during the pandemic. So, multi-generation households are becoming more common. Also, there are more self-employed freelancers, who need different housing solutions, as traditional financing isn’t available to them.

Planning for the future of work

Vitaud is clear, though, that there’s plenty we need to do to build on these promising signs.

For example, she suggests we need:

  • Better unions for domestic workers
  • Better employer negotiations about the costs of working from home
  • A tax system that takes domestic work into account
  • A better balance of household work between partners, particularly in heterosexual couples
  • New forms of housing — allowing people to mutualise services.

Management is a key issue, too. Traditional styles of management don’t work with remote teams — we try to replicate them by always being on Zoom, or using surveillance tools. It didn’t work. But it’s not a zero or one situation. Being in a remote team doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see your co-workers. Instead, ask how do you divide your time? We need both to come together to share ideas and get to know each other, and then we need to create space for deep work. The proportion for each business will vary enormously.

People in the office play political games for status, while those who are remote being forgotten, is a risk. We already see this with part-time jobs, which are overwhelmingly taken by women. There’s this perception that you’re not ambitious or serious. That’s a huge danger. There should never be a single category of person for whom working from home is appropriate.

A better home for a better working life

Parenthood is clearly a big subject for companies, Vitaud suggests. You can’t declare one room in a house public and another private. In particular, there’s a role for companies to help fathers be more involved in their families.

Longer lives also mean longer working lives, and that suggests that we need to build rest periods into our careers. Many female politicians blossom in later life — in their 50s or 60s. People are healthier longer.

And then we need to shift our buildings to adapt to these changes: Brave New Home, by Diana Lind, charts one way forward. Buildings need to become more flexible, to accommodate different types of families. You can have members of your family in small, self-contained living spaces within your house. There are multiple ways of living with others, and the extreme loneliness we are seeing now can be addressed by new kinds of housing.

Also, we need to build more, remove some legislative inflexibility, and we need to change the tax incentives, too.

She’s optimistic about the future of cities: the problems that have been highlighted were pre-existing. Pandemic-driven redistribution of people will ease or solve some of those problems.