Please, Account For Shadow Work


It’s summer, and it feels like the first summer after a year of frustration. Pandemics, masks, working from home — all of it has blurred the line between “work time” and “free time.”

But now, with most workers getting vaccinated (at least in the United States, where I work in a large and fairly liberal city), there are discussions ongoing about what will be the eventual fate of Work From Home (WFH). Will offices open back up? Will we adopt a hybrid schedule of only spending some portion of the workweek in-office?

I’m paying close attention to the suggestions and ideas coming out of our Human Resources department — and I hope that, when they announce the company’s new policy, they account for shadow work.

I only learned about this concept recently, but it immediately clicked for me. Shadow work explains so much of why I feel like, even though I only work 40 hours per week, there’s never enough time for me to get to everything that I want to do in my personal life.

Here’s what shadow work is, how we have been given more and more of this work to do as consumers, and how WFH impacts the balance of shadow work.

Shadow Work is the Dark Matter of a Job

Physicists have calculated that much of the mass of the universe exists as dark matter; it’s all the matter that doesn’t reflect light back, so we don’t detect it when we look out at our universe.

Similarly, shadow work is an economics term that describes all of the unpaid additional labor that is necessary for us to keep our society, our lives, running.

Consider, for example, if you work in an office for 40 hours per week. You are paid for the time that you have your butt in the office chair at your desk, at your computer, and doing your work.

But in order to hold that job, you probably also have to consider the following:

  • Transportation. You probably drive a car to work, which requires regular stops at the gas station to refuel. You also need to either take it for regular check-ups or perhaps spend some time doing repairs and maintenance.
  • Food. If your company doesn’t provide lunch, you need to bring your own. You might have to invest additional time in cooking your own lunches to bring along, or you’ll have to pay (and spend some time) buying food at a take-out.
  • Attire. If you have to wear any particular outfits, you’ll need to spend time shopping for work clothing.

All of these are tasks that you have to do, but you’re not paid to do, says Ivan Illich, the first person to coin the term of shadow work. The thesis has been expanded upon by Craig Lambert, in a book entitled “Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day.”

When it was originally described by Illich, shadow work was seen as a necessary evil. This shadow work included housework and the rearing of children. Child-rearing parents are necessary for society, but they aren’t paid for watching over those kids. Thus, this work is unpaid but necessary.

However, in more recent years, companies have taken advantage of shadow labor as a way to cut costs without sacrificing profit.

How? It’s easy.

Offload as much work as possible onto the consumer, without passing on savings.

The Growth of Required Shadow Work

In a typical day of errands, look around you; you’ll find shadow work is everywhere.

Consider the journey of heading off to college. This is probably one of the first times that a young adult will be out on their own, as they transition from their childhood home to their dormitory at university.

On the drive to college, they’ll need to stop and fill up their car with gas, maybe a few times. The student is expected to pump their own gas and work the gasoline pump interface.

Once they get to their dorm room, they realize that they need some furniture. Off to IKEA! The furniture is sold unassembled; the student will have to build their own furniture from the provided pieces.

The dormitory has a dining hall, but the student will need plenty of snacks for those study sessions between meals. At the grocery store, the student carries their groceries to the self-checkout, where they do the unpaid work of checking out their own purchases.

Now that the student is safely seen in the dorm, it’s time for the parents to go home. They’re flying back, leaving the car for the student. The parents have to search for their own flights, complete the purchase process, and make sure to print their own boarding passes and check their own baggage when they arrive at the airport.

Simply put, the more shadow work that we take on as consumers, the more a company can save — because they’ve convinced us that this is beyond the terms of the purchase. In exchange for “cheap gas, cheap groceries, cheap flights”, we agree to shoulder some of the work.

But how does this apply to working from home?

A pleasant excursion out into the open air, a chance to get some exercise before work begins? Or would you consider this to be shadow work? Photo by Nic Y-C on Unsplash

What Work Option Gives You Less Shadow Work?

As we approach a potential end to the WFH situation, I encourage everyone to take some time to assess the amount of shadow work in their life, and how much of that would change if you returned to the office.

For many of us, the biggest consideration is the commute. I live fairly close to the office of my current job, but commuting to work still adds about an hour a day, a time during which I cannot be getting ahead on work or enjoying my free time.

How has working from home altered your amount of free time?

  • Do you spend more time cleaning your house and maintaining your working area, or do you have more free time to do the same chores?
  • Are you more productive and getting your workload done in less time, or is the blending of work and home life making it more difficult to control the number of hours spent on the job?
  • How much additional free time do you have, versus before you started working from home?

There’s no simple answer; for some of us, returning to an office may be the better solution. Tech employees, in particular, may receive meals at work (saves time on cooking), which could be combined with a short commute for considerable shadow work savings.

But for many others, when we think about returning to work, we focus on the office, on the in-person meetings, on the relationship-building from face-to-face versus the extra effort to look presentable. We should also make sure to not forget to account for the shadow work that fills a considerable portion of our hours.

What’s the best choice for you — back to the office, or staying at home? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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