Three years ago, my family and I briefly became famous for a blooper which became an online sensation. I was speaking on BBC News about South Korean politics. My young children burst into the room, onscreen behind me, and then my wife tried frantically to pull them out of my office. The whole thing plays like a live-action comedy of errors, and it became a hit. We could not leave our house for three days because of the press attention. I have since acquired the moniker “BBC Dad”.
It is a weird experience becoming famous for basically doing nothing. We lost control of our kids for a few minutes. Every parent in the world does that, so we are not exceptional. Whose kids are not cute? My wife and I have no interest in being celebrities. Indeed, the loss of anonymity is a very odd condition we still have not really reconciled ourselves to. We still do not quite believe it when some random person will approach us in a restaurant or airport to ask us about the video.
Coronavirus has brought much of this back. The video has once again been circulating as an example of how telework or video conferencing from home will inevitably go haywire. (That is true.) And because we live in South Korea, where the coronavirus clampdown began earlier than in the West, and with much greater force, there has been an overlapping interest in how we have dealt with it.
The truth is that it has been exhausting, and it will probably be tough for you too, especially if you have young kids.
I am not an expert in parenting or telework issues, but I have stumbled into these areas somewhat, if only because I am asked by journalists so often about these issues given the BBC Dad video visibility over the years. So here are some early thoughts on coronavirus’ impact on work and family from someone who has been exposed to telework’s problems for years.
- Telework is primarily possible for white-collar knowledge professionals, so the possibility of a class divide over this new work mode, if it endures, is real. Workers in blue-collar and person-to-person service industries such as hairdressers or bartenders cannot telework. This is not the “wave of the future” for a lot of people.
- Telework is a real challenge for parents with children under 10 years old. This could provoke a sharp divide between employers and parent employees, and between parent and non-parent employees. Teleworkers who are parents will be challenged to get much done at home without constant interruption. Right now, with my kids locked in the house so much because of coronavirus, I do maybe two hours of work a day. The rest is spent chasing them around, reading or playing games, and generally trying to make sure they do not just watch TV all day.
- Telework can eat up family time and space, turning everything into work, just as your mobile phone constantly tethers you to work. We will miss the sharp division between home and office if we blend them together. Office will colonise home. Telework sounds like a convenience until you find yourself taking Skype calls on Saturday morning.
The coronavirus quarantine is grinding. We have tried to put on a good face for the interviews and Twitter, but it has been hard, and I imagine many Westerners will find this too in the coming weeks, as the clampdown there intensifies.
- Telework means video conferencing, which means lots of BBC Dad incidents. This is simply inevitable. Kids, spouses, pets, and who knows what all will wander in front of your home computer camera. The sheer randomness of life all but insures a regular series of incidents like mine. My blooper occurred simply because I forgot to lock my office door when I was tired late in the day. (Really. All the conspiracy theories that we staged it to become famous are silly.) If my video incident was enabled by such a small, typical error, imagine what will come in the future if huge numbers of people start working via camera at home.
- There are obvious savings and conveniences to working at home. You are not driving. You are not using the lights and facilities of another building while those in your house sit idle. You are more available to help out around the house, because you are home more. But simultaneously, you are also more likely to see work time seep away as you fool around in your house when you really should be working.
- Telework could be stressful on marriages and relationships. Even devoted couples need a break and some time apart. Work does that. Work sends you to a new place to talk and interact with new people. It circulates you in the community, whereas working from home all the time will quickly become boring. I could work from home a lot more than I do as a university professor, but I actually like going to work, if only for the change of pace. I imagine many teleworkers will find that they miss that even as they see the convenience of home work.
- The coronavirus quarantine is grinding. We have tried to put on a good face for the interviews and Twitter, but it has been hard, and I imagine many Westerners will find this too in the coming weeks, as the clampdown there intensifies. It is weird and rather unnerving to be afraid to go outside. We spend too much time watching TV, and it is a temptation to eat too much. The kids are cooped up and chase each other around, because they have nothing else to do and have too much energy. Without being able to move around outside much or go anywhere, our sleep routine has become looser and fidgety. Eventually, we gave up about a week ago and went out for a hike. All of us, especially the kids, just needed sustained time outdoors.
- All of this will be a problem in the West soon – cabin fever, overeating, not enough exercise, family conflict as everyone spends too much time together in confined spaces, too much TV, and so on. We have tried hard to build a schedule for our time so that it is not just a landfill of whatever we wander into. Our daughter is doing Zoom education. It is not great, but it is something. I jog early in the morning when the trails are empty and social distancing is not too hard to do. We have stopped leaving the TV on for constant news updates. It is all too depressing anyway.
This will be a slog for the next several months, and my guess is that for all the convenience of telework, most people will enjoy going back to an office when this situation finally breaks.