The nomenclature of working from home and its relationship to energy demand.

Kimberley O’Sullivan, University of Otago

Since the 1990s, there has been an increasing frequency of what was then referred to as “teleworking”, or completing some work that would otherwise have taken place at the office.  Arlie Russell Hochschild in 1997 described the tension between work and home having become a “Time Bind”.1 In her analysis, the time-poverty experienced by working parents had created time-debts owed by parents to their children, their home life, or their work life. The Time Bind was present to such an extent that being at home had become so stressful that their place of work now fulfilled the roles of home, offering a haven of relaxation, connection, and recognition of labour performed, particularly by working mothers who were more often performing the “second shift”2 of household labour.

Hochschild’s descriptions of the second shift and the time bind illustrate the historical backdrop of the social shift to having couples (and importantly, parents) that both work in paid employment outside the home. However, the Time Bind seems more relevant in a previous context where work was more often completed at the office, and perhaps also when household structures more typically reflected a coupled parenting arrangement.

The idea that a work-home binary exists is now becoming increasingly obsolete. With the growth of technologies and expansion of telecommunications networks, as well as the reduction of costs for these to the extent that personal access to WIFI and computers enables almost constant connection where required, work is now not limited to either the “home office” or the “office office”. An increase in self-employment, as well as the rise of contracting as a new norm and precarity in the gig economy, is also contributing to this social shift. An explosion of ‘third spaces’ and commercially operated shared workspaces indicates the demand for balance between working truly from ‘home’ and in a space outside the home for at least part of the time. These newer forms of working from home have important implications for household energy use and demand side management, although to date it seems this issue has flown under the radar in policy development.

Few studies have thoroughly accounted for the use of energy at home while undertaking traditional forms of ‘teleworking’, with most of the focus on reduced transport use.3 4 Those that have explored the energy aspects of teleworking have often neglected to explore the social practices that are key drivers of domestic energy and transport demand. For example, the social practices of laundry and cooking, which are tied to routines and constraints of daily life are often “stickier”5 targets for load-shifting as a means of demand-side energy management. These contribute to the “family peak” in households with children often using higher volumes of energy during peak demand times.6 This is concerning from a public health perspective as it neglects to acknowledge the additional energy use required for heating (or cooling) the currently poor quality housing stock, or the risk of increasing inequalities through loss of appropriately comfortable workspaces. There is more work needed to open up these energy related dimensions of ‘working from home’, but more fundamental is the need to problematize the language that is being used to capture the shifting character, location and temporalities of work practices.

Not only the idea of where working ‘from home’ happens, but as a result, what this should be called, is food for thought. Drawing on Vygotsky’s7 contribution to developmental psychology that the development of mental concepts is dependent on both inner speech and oral language, accurately naming ‘working from home’ is part of the problem. Being unable to succinctly describe a phenomenon makes it difficult to think about, and even more complicated to insert into a conversation about energy policy. The antonym for ‘name’ is ‘unknown’. This makes the nomenclature or lack thereof, of working from home a relevant consideration.

When work is happening during the commute (in public, private, or even active transport), in checkout lines, or playgrounds while supervising children, “teleworking” seems an almost prehistoric phrase. “Remote office” or “home office” already seem dated. When I asked my peers how they would refer to “working from home”, giving the examples of “remote working”, “teleworking”, or “home office”, one joked “Um, working from home?!”.

Initial analysis of interviews undertaken in New Zealand and the North-East of England would suggest that energy use while working from home is most influenced by the time, tasks, and spaces that people have and use. For some, energy and load shifting are given consideration, but the majority of participants in this study agree that demand side management cannot offer incentives great enough to shift practices which have been carefully arranged to suit the modern schedules of family life. Working from home has alleviated the Time Bind to some extent, but perhaps the Energy-Time-Bind is waiting in the wings and while it is affordable for these families to avoid it, they will continue to do so.

These social changes are still dynamic. As one participant observed, children today are growing up with an understanding that ‘home’ is a viable and normal setting for ‘work’ to take place, alongside other work – often from a second job – performed in another location. Furthermore, they are watching their parents’ career paths unfold with greater flexibility and flux than previous generations whose parents may have stayed in the same jobs for many years, or indeed an entire career. What the implications of home working are for future home energy practices are currently as difficult to predict as the future of work itself.


  1. Hochschild AR. The time bind: when work becomes home and home becomes work. New York, NY: Henry Paperbacks 1997.
  2. Hochschild AR, Machung A. The Second Shift: Working families and the revolution of home. . 3rd ed. London: Penguin Books Ltd 2012.
  3. Fu M, Andrew Kelly J, Peter Clinch J, et al. Environmental policy implications of working from home: Modelling the impacts of land-use, infrastructure and socio-demographics. Energy Policy 2012;47:416-23. doi:
  4. Hynes M. Telework isn’t working: A policy review. The Eocnomic and Social Review 2014;45(5):579-602.
  5. Shove E, Pantzar M, Watson M. The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday life and how it changes. London: SAGE Publications Ltd 2012.
  6. Nicholls L, Strengers Y. Peak demand and the ‘family peak’ period in Australia: Understanding practice (in)flexibility in households with children. Energy Research & Social Science 2015;9:116-24. doi:
  7. Vygotskií LS. Thought and Language. MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1986.