I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but many of us who are still working are doing so from home — and because these people are also the type who have the time to read articles on the internet while they’re technically supposed to be working, content about working from home has seen a rise in popularity. Currently, the homepage of the New York Times features links to not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, but seven articles about working from home, ranging from tips on “how to look your best on a webcam” as well as how to “remake your space while homebound,” a seven-day “productivity challenge,”, the “Dos and Don’ts” of video meetings (this is different from the “how to look your best on a webcam” article), an opinion column announcing the discovery that offices are unnecessary, a thing about “channel[ing] your stress into creativity” with art critic Jerry Saltz, plus an article explaining why your internet is so slow right now (it’s because of all the working from home). There are also articles about masturbation (still happening) and what Pablo Escobar’s hippos have been up to (creating a small but thriving hippo population in South America), but for the most part, if it’s not a New York Times article about coronavirus, it’s a New York Times article about working from home.
The promise of these pieces, as well as others like them at other publications, is to encourage the reader to maximize their time so that they feel more active when stuck inside. Americans supposedly love to work, and if you ever make the mistake of looking at social media, you’ve surely stumbled across the cult of productivity demanding you to rise and grind in service of squeezing every last ounce of value from your decaying flesh. And it’s not just work we love, but experiences, like traveling to Iceland, going to the My Chemical Romance tour, or waiting three hours to eat at a hot new restaurant, only now our sole experiences comprise some variety of: walking to the end of the block; making a paranoid trip to the grocery store; sitting on the couch, consuming some media; eating food and/or making it, and so on. We have all this displaced energy because of current conditions, and so we need somewhere to channel it, preferably in some direction that makes money for someone (potentially even you!).
But here’s the thing: Nobody gives a shit how productive you’re being right now, except your boss, and even he’s easy to fool given the average gulf between “hours of work I have to do” and “hours I am legally required to sit inside the office.” At this point, work’s main function is the money; its secondary function is serving as a distraction from worrying about what’s going to happen a year, a month, a week from now, placing it on the same level as reading books, being too online, bingeing Netflix, playing video games, and not writing King Lear. Things are bad, but it’s unclear if this is going to be the sort of bad where life is on momentary pause, or if life as we know it is going to come crashing down and we’re just drinking margaritas at the mall.
My best guess is that we’ll end up somewhere between “fine” and “a less-fun version of that Tupac music video where they ripped off Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.” Some businesses will be ultimately unaffected by all of this, while others will be hurt tremendously and permanently, and at the moment it’s impossible to tell which is which. Nobody can. Typically, you work for the promise of something better — a promotion, a raise, a future that’s more promising than the present. But with all of that in terrifying jeopardy, the demands are much lower. It is just enough to get by, if that’s all you’re capable of, since “getting by” may be the new emotional normal for months to come. (If you’re one of the superhumans responding to contemporary conditions by suddenly maximizing your productivity and turning into Jon Taffer on steroids, good for you, but please leave the rest of us alone.) The knowledge that you have no control over your own fate is a shitty feeling, one that is more acute than usual, and you’d be forgiven if you took the space to process it all, however that processing might manifest itself.
So if you’re lucky enough to still be employed at all, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to maintain the same level of productivity that you might in your office. Productivity is, under normal circumstances, a value-agnostic term — spending an entire day writing a 10,000-word article would make me “productive,” but it wouldn’t guarantee that any of those words were worth reading — and at a time when there’s a good chance that entire sectors of the economy could vanish at a moment’s notice and that 10 percent of Americans might be jobless on the other side of this whole thing, “doing work” becomes a more abstract concept. It can be genuinely helpful for one’s mental health to have something, anything, to do right now, and if that’s the case for you, then you should remember that you are at this point not working for the sake of your employer, you’re working for your own sake, and for the sake of those you work with.
If working from home helps you feel normal, then by all means, work as hard as you possibly can (personally, writing articles about coronavirus has been a great way to help me process my feelings about it all, but I understand that I’m in a relatively unnatural position). If you’re not feeling like working or if working is making you feel unnecessarily terrible, that’s pretty understandable. Fiddle with some mindless phone game for a while, read a book, whatever. It’s not that none of this matters; it’s that what matters right now is staying sane and safe, and different people have different ways of achieving that, all of which are equally valid. Just make sure you stay logged into Slack so your boss doesn’t notice you’re screwing around.