By Tony Samson
A COMMON PLACE for work became the “new normal” after the industrial revolution in the western world of the 1800s. The then agricultural economy, that itself founded villages, went on to large scale manufacturing, drawing laborers from the rural population to work in the assembly lines to produce such items such as automobiles and steel bars. This development separated the home from the place of work. The subsequent revolutions like the Information Age, as well as the rise of the service sector, led to even larger office buildings and the introduction of cubicles.
The home then became just a living space with work and employment done somewhere else. The two sites were not necessarily near each other. There was a commute time between home and office, often longer than the lunch and coffee break combined. Working from home (WFH) due to the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) is now trumpeted not as a solution to traffic congestion (remember telecommuting?) but as a new form of social distancing, known as the new normal.
Working at home is actually two centuries old. It can thus be classified as the very old normal. The blacksmith of that period lived above his shop and so technically worked at home. Monks too lived in the monastery where they grew vegetables. The haberdashers, morticians, and saloon keepers had both work and residence in one place.
Even in contemporary times, before the lockdowns, many productive individuals worked at home. The residence is referred to as the “home office,” as differentiated from this same phrase designating the headquarters of a multinational company. However, these home workers we refer to were not locked down and confined, as they were free to go out not just for groceries, but to dine out, go to the gym, or meet clients. They were not thrown down by the police for handcuffing in case they wandered out without a face mask and shirtless in their own driveways.
The home economy includes many in the food business. Didn’t we buy fruitcakes for Christmas gifts from a house in the neighborhood? These can also broaden their product offering to include lemon tarts and baked ham. Before long, customers picking up their orders get so numerous that the neighbors start complaining about clogged streets. So these home businesses evolved into restaurant chains… with a new commissary outside the home.
Writers too, not necessarily local ones, work at home. The disciplined ones, like Stephen King with 80 or so novels, devote a particular block of time to writing every day at home, except on designated holiday breaks. Some, like Desmond Morris, even dress up in a suit, to go downstairs to his home office to write. This attire draws the line between lounging around and working.
We know of a venture capitalist who works at home in his pajamas, cooking up deals and putting together funding and partnerships for acquisitions of hospitals and agribusiness ventures. Of course, he also goes out for lunch, to celebrate with his partners when a deal is done. And confers with lawyers when the pesky management of an acquired enterprise refuses to retire.
What about those who offer home services like extracting blood for lab tests on cholesterol levels, home massage complete with folding beds, and care-giving and sponge bathing for the elderly? These services are not necessarily offered by the same person.
The informal sector (sometimes referred to as the “underground economy”) is quite hospitable to personal services that don’t require an office, and the overhead that entails. We are only including in this category legitimate pursuits, or at least those not specifically illegitimate for which no warrant of arrest is necessary for apprehension or even outright elimination for resisting arrest, usually reported later as self-defense.
The home worker may eventually hire an accountant and pay some tax to avoid undue harassment. She can form a single person corporation (SPC) so she can legitimately deduct expenses for utilities and the renovations needed to accommodate proper ventilation.
The oldest profession, landscape architecture, is provided at the customer site, usually on a one-on-one basis. (Sir, do you want a rock garden?) This professional works from home and relies on word of mouth marketing and referrals, much like a dentist. For the home worker, the smartphone is an essential piece of equipment for taking orders. And if she wants to change her customer base, a new SIM card is all she needs — who is this please?
Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.