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[Countertrend Article] Teleworking: reconsidering how we live?

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Philippe Duhamel  - Lecturer in Geography at the University of Angers and Director of the GIS Etudes Touristiques

Teleworking is a practice that has been imposed on a large number of employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although to begin with it may have appeared pleasant to those who had a work space at home, there was an immediate problem for employees with smaller living spaces, accentuated by the presence of children that were at home due to the closure of schools.

However, everybody agrees that this practice of teleworking was new or even revolutionary. The scale of this way of working was certainly unique and vast, but it was imposed and for many was a real constraint. The question is whether it will continue after COVID and wondering whether teleworking is a novelty or a gradual but unavoidable change in new relationships with work and places of work (the office) that have existed for working people for a certain amount of time already?

In that case, COVID has not so much revealed new professional practices and new lifestyles, or a new way of living in the world, but rather accelerated trends, as crises often do.


Indeed, the issue of teleworking, or working from home, fundamentally poses the question of people live and how the reside in particular places that some geographers such as Jacques Lévy and Michel Lussault have studied, namely “the spatialities of individual actors” (2003).


Teleworking: a spatial revolution?

Traditionally, either in agricultural or industrial societies, each individual lived in the place where they worked in a relationship of proximity that was evident and even built as a system of control for the workers: going from the mine or the factory home without going past a service (a bar) that could give rise to places for discussion and possibly for opposition to the established economic and political order. However, at all times, the economic and political elite lived and worked at home, with an office, lounges (that could be considered as meeting rooms) or libraries to conduct their work and meetings. And in modern times, teachers, university lecturers or researchers are people who have a work space at home and that only go to their place of work on days when they teach, for seminars or meetings, and/or may not go there for long periods, whilst drafting an article, a book or correcting students’ work, or whilst on an assignment abroad.

For all of them, working at home means having a dedicated space. This means making an investment to have an additional 10 to 15 m² to install an office. Moreover, this also means not being in contact with the outside world (going out every day or seeing colleagues). A form of isolation is part of these professions. This dual logic (having an office/isolation) explains the great difficulties experienced today by some employees in working and living in the same place over a long period.

The tertiary society, which has been emerging for half a century, has profoundly called into question the ancestral lifestyle by progressively separating the residence and place of work, and leading to a first spatial revolution: the travel time between the place of work and residence has constantly increased and the unit of measurement became “the duration” and not “the kilometre”. The popularity of cars and the construction of fast roads along with the development of the public transport networks made it possible to increase the space-time between people’s place of work and their place of residence. These rationales vary greatly depending on the size of the towns where workers live: the time spent travelling by workers in Paris and Anger are not of the same duration or over the same distances. These developments also brought about another change: the radical dissociation between the places that were until then the same. In France this gave rise in the 1980s and 1990s to the expressions “turbo-prof” [turbo teacher] and “turbo-cadres” [turbo executives] to refer to people who lived with their family for part of the week in a little town in the countryside whilst their job was in a large city or Paris some distance away.


Teleworking: the result of new technologies?

New developments required new innovations: ITC. Embodied in France by fax and Minitel in the 1980s, then accentuated by the progressive distribution of laptop computers and mobile phones, they are a necessary tool, but were not sufficient to give rise to teleworking. These tools made it possible for workers to live in one place and work elsewhere for a few days, such as professional event organisers met in 1993: living in the village of Deia in Majorca, they organised a whole series of events at a distance on the Iberian peninsula and went on site a few days before they took place.

But the digital revolution of the noughties made it possible to cross a new limit: the internet, social media and the digital communication of any document facilitate these exchanges and interactions. We can maintain a bond without being together in the same place. Applications like WhatsApp or WeChat make it possible to communicate from far away for little cost, tools like Zoom / Teams shrink distances and compress time: everybody can try a feeling of power, of ubiquity because we can be everywhere, whereas before, distance and travel time forced us to choose.

Now; with all these tools, our home becomes a place from which we can have access to the world (the world that each of us has built through their professional and personal relationships). And finally, everything is not so bad, all the same... So why stay and live where we are? Especially when it is a large city that many people find noisy and polluted, and even a source of anxiety for some? It is possible to imagine another way of living, elsewhere. Which is why towns close to Paris and tourist destinations are becoming desirable and appealing. For the latter, after the arrival of temporary inhabitants (tourists) and permanent residents (people working in tourism), came new temporary inhabitants (business travellers and students) and new residents: former tourists who have come to retire and live in the land of their holidays.

Thanks to the health crisis caused by COVID-19, a new phase of making tourist places or medium sized towns increasingly residential seems to be commencing. This will only affect those who status or role is compatible with this new way of living.

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