The privilege of absence

“Just you wait till your father gets home!” The old threat is based on the idea of the father as ultimate authority for the home. But the dodgy gender politics obscures something interesting: the fact that the father’s very absence helps to confer that authority. You can’t use “telling Dad” as a threat if Dad is right there. He has to be absent for the threat to work. Mum’s presence is both a result of and a reason for her lower status.

The relationship between absence, power and status is complex. It’s obvious that if Godot had turned up, he wouldn’t have got his name in the title of the play. But absence doesn’t always confer (or denote) status; it depends on how much status is available to you in the first place.

I’ve mentioned before, in passing, that being able to work from home rather than going into an office is a privilege. That may seem obvious, but we don’t always unpick quite what’s going on there.

Firstly, working from home is usually not an option for blue-collar workers; when did you last hear of a cleaner or forklift truck driver doing their job in jim-jams? The proliferation of con tricks involving “work from home opportunities” highlights just how unattainable (but desirable) this kind of work is for many people.

Another reason why it’s a privilege: those who are present bring (usually unnoticed) benefits to the office – and those who are absent don’t. If everybody in a given office worked from home all the time, there would be nobody to do the countless things that can only be done by someone in the office: take delivery of that order, scan that physical document and email it to the guy who isn’t there, dig out that physical file and look up something for the guy who isn’t there, fix the photocopier, buy toilet paper, greet visitors, make rounds of tea and generally put up with continual diversions from your “real” work for the sake of creating an office that feels like a proper workplace rather than a missing centre. People who are in the office for one day out of five probably won’t do a fifth of that work – they’re more likely to do none of it. Why should they get their hands dirty fixing a printer jam when they’re “hardly ever in”? People who say they’re “more productive away from the office” are probably telling the truth; but they are overlooking the other truth that their own productivity comes at the expense of someone else’s.

Absence, in these circumstances, is a result of higher status. Absence reinforces the idea that your time is more important than other people’s (albeit verbally expressed with terms like “I don’t have time…” rather than “I’m too important…”).

But the relationship between absence and status generally is more complex than that. The level of self-importance and resource-grabbing varies hugely among remote workers, and, as I said above, it’s to do with how much status you had in the first place. If you’ve argued for the right to work from home for childcare reasons, you’ll make fewer demands as an absentee than someone who’s not in much because their job involves a lot of travelling. (The more far-flung the place, the more justified the unreasonable demand sounds. “I need you to fax it to me NOW! I’m on my way to the AIRPORT! I don’t care that it’s 6:30pm on a Friday night and I don’t actually own a fax machine! I’m going to DUBAI!”)

Similarly, if you’ve been hired as a work-from-home freelancer so that the company can spend less than they would on hiring in-house staff, chances are your status will be pretty low and people will expect you to respond to contact as quickly as you would if you were sitting at the next desk and they said your name.

So what am I saying here? Just that I’d like more analysis of the power dynamics between people who are here and people who are not here.

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