Over the years we’ve heard people from all walks of life complain about work, sometimes with good cause because they have an unreasonable boss, unsupportive colleagues or work in a dysfunctional organisation, and sometimes as a kind of conversational gambit that serves to establish some congenial common ground. Nothing like a little grumble to help us bond.
Covid-19 has brought an agonising reappraisal of the way we do things, and everyone is careful to talk about returning to a/the new normal, although none of us quite know what it will entail and how it will affect us.
At a recent meeting a delegate who represented workers reported that an insurance company wanted to close all its buildings and make everyone work from home. The plans went far beyond protecting the workforce during Covid-19, they were part of a long-term strategy to change how the company operated. Others at the meeting agreed that some employers saw the crisis as a way to force changes that would otherwise have been impossible or taken years. The coda to the story was that the company was keen to sell its prime real estate, although if every business decided to follow suit, who would buy in a sudden glut on the property market?
I have since heard of an international organisation that is planning to close its offices and have everyone work from home, including its own staff and those who attend its meetings. I don’t have the full details and guess that talks between management and staff will determine the final outcome, but I can’t help but wonder if all the implications have been thought through. How might the law of unintended consequences play out?
Some people hate their job, others love theirs and there are some who simply get on with it. But the work we do gives our lives structure, it provides us with activity and fills our time, and on a personal note there have been occasions when work has kept me on an even keel. It is very difficult to lose that framework; you are suddenly without the visible means of support that has surrounded you throughout your working life. Many companies and organisations run pre-retirement courses to prepare people for what by anyone’s reckoning is a major life change.
Working from home deprives us of that same supportive infrastructure, the one we miss after retirement. Perhaps infrastructure sounds a bit overblown, arguably it really boils down to the small everyday things such as chatting to friends, a drink after work, playing squash with your mates, even a feeling of belonging.
We read that lockdown has caused mental problems, some of them caused by the enforced isolation that has lasted since March. Compulsory confinement has also caused an increase in domestic abuse, and of course women are the chief victims. At the risk of venturing onto terrain best left for the experts, one has to wonder if the social contact of work alleviates the depression that can lead to such problems.
If office buildings closed, what would replace them? In some countries, downtown areas are already blighted because the big shops have decamped to large out-of-town sites. Closing offices will take people out of the city centre – what will replace them? It conjures up a dystopian image of run-down, boarded-up, litter-strewn cityscapes with a few surviving tattoo parlours and charity shops.
Many years ago, I worked in Delhi and noticed the hotel seemed overstaffed – one person would sweep the floor and three would watch. I commented on this to our Indian host, and he explained that although it might not be in line with best business practice, it gave the people the dignity of work. His words have stayed with me, and are I suppose reflected in ILO’s decent work agenda.
The virus hit us in March of this year, then came a second wave (probably a maritime misnomer) and we’re anxiously scanning the horizon for a third in many parts of the world. If you try to sum up the current situation, I suppose you could distil it down to: we don’t know where this will lead. The fat lady is still looking for her shoes, so are we not getting ahead of ourselves in taking irreversible decisions?