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How long will Duke stay at my house?

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Duke has been a guest at my house for over a year, using my study as an office during the day. I upgraded my home network to support its video conferencing habit. That’s fine. We all needed to figure out how to get things done during the pandemic. Duke recently spoke about the situation, but we didn’t have a conversation. It made me wonder if they would be overstaying their welcome and whether I have a say, in my own home, about their visit.

Can I speak? 

I’m talking about our Work From Home (WFH) status. 

The first time Duke publicly said anything about future WFH considerations was in the April/May 2021 issue of the faculty/staff magazine Working@Duke. It announced that a Work-From-Home Committee made up of university and medical center leaders has been tasked to explore telecommuting strategies for the future of Duke. According to the article, some jobs “could primarily remain remote beyond the pandemic.” Some units are pilot testing 90-day WFH periods to “assess positions that could primarily remain remote beyond the pandemic.” 

Considerations are being made, we are led to believe. We’re told that Duke’s approach will “require flexibility at the school, department, and unit level.”

Given how publicly Duke is making these statements, I was shocked they would make them in the absence of the employee voice. Leaders are making decisions without employees being consulted or having say. A couple of months into the pandemic, Duke abruptly halted retirement contributions and merit pay increases for the 2021 fiscal year. Similarly, will my (our!) future working conditions at Duke change for better or worse without employee say in the matter? The recently formed Duke University Press Workers Union mentions on their website that they are concerned about the potential reduction of office space and normalization of long-term telecommuting. I wonder: will I even have an office to return to?

Don’t mistake being surveyed for engaging in dialogue, being heard and having an influence. Surveys set the terms and identify interests a priori. But whose interests? Did employees have a say in identifying the frame and what should be asked? Who sets the terms of the conversation?

In December 2020, an online poll of Duke staff and faculty titled “How is remote work going for you?” was conducted to “gauge how often employees would prefer to work remotely after COVID-19.” Framing it this way, it steers the conversation to a narrow aspect of employees’ relationship to Duke. It may even have primed respondents in particular ways. When we think of the pandemic, WFH may be positive because we may not realize that we have been working in a holding pattern with the assumption that the context is temporary.

Both the survey and the WFH article focus on productivity, efficiency and the stated functions of an office. It approaches a singular dimension of a person forgetting that we are complex humans. WFH does not only affect my work; it also affects my home. With this morphing of home space into workspace, my husband lost full control of the space he uses to compose and perform as a professional musician, with privacy to practice and record. His music studio is next to my office. When he’s practicing or recording, we make a point of closing our doors as a veneer of privacy. But I hear what he’s doing. These are some of my particulars. WFH can more negatively or more positively affect someone else—the point is, employees need to have say.

We bring to Duke not just our work selves. When I start my work day, I don’t become just a Duke employee whose role is only to fulfill the official description of my job. Offices have unstated functions including moral support and informal communication. Randomness and sometimes chaos can lead to identification of new interests, surprising successes and new ventures. Some years ago, I happened on a Duke colleague’s advising session with a student, a chance encounter that led to a newfound interest in college advising. When I worked at the Franklin Humanities Institute, conversations among the staff propelled us to apply for and successfully find internal funding to host a two-day workshop on dismantling racism, a model that later spread to other parts of the university. None of this was in our job descriptions. It only happened through the synergistic energy that developed by being together in person.

Without employees having a say about our working conditions, I fear the exploration of a WFH or hybrid work situation will over-emphasize the work self to the detriment of our fuller selves at Duke. WFH may segregate this work self vs. non-work self even more. Returning to the survey, how would it look if the survey began from a different starting point with questions such as: What expectations did you have for your current job when you first began? How did you imagine your job and career at Duke unfolding? We need questions about the whole person. There are questions to ask before getting to the frame of WFH vs. in office vs. hybrid. Without that consideration, jobs and offices at Duke are narrowly framed around official functions and couched in the language of productivity and efficiency. To put it bluntly, we become work horses.

If Duke really cares about diversity, equity and inclusion, it needs to be aware that Duke employees bring their complex, full selves to work. We are embedded in structural inequality that positions many at a disadvantage when arriving at Duke. Will WFH shift the cost of running an office from Duke to the private individual? For me, it already has. I can’t fit my Duke office equipment in my home (standing desk, two monitors, and a work laptop). I already have my home computer that now doubles as my work computer. Those less privileged will be absorbing a larger percentage of the cost of running a Duke office at home. Those already more privileged have other resources at Duke and elsewhere that they can tap into to dampen the cost-shifting aspect. For some, professional networking and finding opportunities at Duke will become harder without a base at Duke, contributing to greater inequality. 

I’m not necessarily against WFH, but I am concerned that without employee say, WFH could exacerbate the inequity experienced by many. 

Duke, shall we have a dialogue — on equal terms — where employees have a say? You are still a guest in my home.

Conal Ho, PhD, holds a doctorate in anthropology, works in the Duke Health IRB, is a college advisor in Trinity and is a board member at the Duke Kunshan University IRB.

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