Back to Work : But Back to the Old ways of Working?

June 25, 2021, 2:50 PM UTC

For many people in the world of work the last fifteen months have been something of a fantasy trip. The government has paid millions of them eighty per cent of their wages not to go to work at all but to stay at home and do their own thing – nice non-work if you can get it. Millions of others have gone on working but been told to stay at home and do it from there whenever possible. The effect has been a massive transformation in the way the balance of life and work has been experienced, at least temporarily, for almost everyone who still has a job. But it’s all about to come to an end. The government is set to lift its ‘work at home’ advice from the middle of next month and the Chancellor is turning off the taps of his generous furlough scheme at the end of September. Hard reality will face us all again. But what should that reality look like? Do we want simply to go back to how things were before – for many, the nine-to-five, forty-hour, five-day week, with weekends off for remission? Or has this enforced experiment in a wholly different way of living and working given us new ideas about how to fit life into work and work into life that we’d like to see established more permanently? And will the bosses let it happen?

Few things stay the same for long and the way we work had been evolving steadily before Covid turned up on the commuter trains, in the factory canteen and around the office water cooler. But Covid gave a massive boost to change. When I was a lad, in an economy still dominated by manual labour, by the pits, the steel-mills and manufacturing industry, the working week was so regular you could almost literally tell the time by it – by when the sirens went off, which way the men were walking up or down the street, and when the boozers got going. It was basically a five-and-a-half day working week, with work on Saturday mornings (the posh schools had lessons then too), an ‘early-closing’ day for shops during the week, and nothing at all happening on Sundays. In Wales the chapels were open but the pubs definitely shut.

All that changed for a variety of reasons. The shift from a manufacturing to a service economy meant much greater flexibility in when people were required to work, and the development of a consumer society in which living was defined as spending meant we had to be given as much opportunity as possible to get to the shops. Early-closing days became a quaint relic, to be found only in country villages, and Sunday trading turned weekends into a very different matter. Fine, maybe, for us as consumers but, as workers, we had to change too. For many the weekend became a time when they had to work and, even if they were still doing a five-day week, the days off had to be fitted in elsewhere. Only hospital consultants have seemed able to buck the trend, leaving nurses to keep things ticking over till Monday morning.

And we’ve seen much else change. First, more maternity leave, and then paternity leave too. Perhaps the most radical change of all was the most recent: the introduction of zero hours contracts that left it exclusively in the hands of the bosses when to hire (and therefore pay) their staff as it suited them. For some workers (students earning a bit on the side, for example) this was fine, the flexibility being exactly what they wanted so that if they suddenly got a date they didn’t need to show up for work. But for those with financial responsibilities, kids to bring up and so on, zero hours contracts just meant insecurity and worry. The gig economy is something my parents’ generation would not have regarded as progress.

That, then, was broadly where we’d reached before the pandemic, when suddenly we were all told to stay at home rather than work every hour God sent. For fifteen months many of us have been ‘enjoying’ an experiment in a wholly different way of living. And there are those who think that experiment will be the prompt for a radical change. Peter Cheese, the chairman of the government’s Flexible Working Taskforce, says that the last fifteen months have provided a ‘generational opportunity’ to alter our traditional working patterns, with ‘going to work’ no longer being the norm but the exception for many people, and a four-day working week ultimately becoming standard.

The evidence, certainly, is that people want change. In the United States four million people simply quit their jobs in April, the highest figure since records began. And here a recent survey indicated that 38% of people in work were looking to change their working roles next year – again, a record. The punchline to many an old gag – ‘You can’t get the staff these days…’ is proving true, at least in some sectors of the economy. Bars, restaurants and hotels are having a tough time getting enough people to pull pints, serve meals or be the bell-hop. And it’s not just that Brexit has sent many of the European fillers of these roles home: British-born hospitality staff have decided in large numbers not to pick up where they left off. One famous London restaurant has had to stop serving lunch altogether as a result. Perhaps we weren’t tipping them enough.

Yet we all need money and we all know that the government was never going to pay us all to do nothing for a moment longer than it needed to. So we’ve got to go back to earning our living. The first question, though, is whether we think we need to earn quite as much as we did (even if it wasn’t that much in the first place). Those on furlough have learned to get by with 20% less income and some may think they should go on doing so, particularly if the alternative is going back to the old rate race. Of course, during lockdown there was less to spend money on: the shops, the pubs the restaurants, the sports stadiums were all shut, and there was nowhere to go. It was hard not to save money and get by on four fifths of what you were used to.

Now all those temptations for spending are coming back and with it the need to earn the money to pay for it. But as yet we simply don’t know whether people will succumb to those temptations and throw away the ‘generational opportunity’ to work less, or whether they’ll want to hold on to the benefits – the greater control of their own time, the less pressured experience of time itself, the freedom to do their own thing – that their enforced removal from the treadmill of work brought them over the last fifteen months. They may even have had time to catch up on the academic studies that have shown for decades now that being richer doesn’t make you happier. In fact quite the reverse. Maybe those who felt happier and more relaxed during lockdown will start to think there’s something to be said for happiness and act accordingly.

Few things are black and white, though, and there’s unlikely to be a mass exodus from work altogether in favour of sitting around cross-legged eating lotus flowers. More probable is that we’ll conclude that we’ll go on working but try to do less of it and in a different way from before. This is what the likes of Peter Cheese are interested in. The buzz phrase is ‘flexi-work’: work better suited to accommodating the fact that there are other things we want to do in life, as well as work.

Covid has speeded up the business of trying out ways to do this. Working from home is the most obvious. There was always probably an element of mistrust behind the unquestioned assumption that if you had a job you’d better turn up for it. Unless the bosses could see you at it, they’d suspect that you were skiving and not putting in the hours. Zoom, of course, has to some extent got around this problem, providing a sort of system of camera surveillance on workers at home. But generally, bosses have simply had to trust. Whether the trust is justified we simply don’t know yet. Anecdotal evidence cuts both ways. Some people claim they’ve ended up working harder from home than they did in the office, even talking of ‘burnout’; others have become more clued up on daytime telly.

The productivity figures aren’t in yet so we don’t know the ‘cost’, if any, of all this home working. But the mistrust case against working from home seems to have bit the dust for good, especially at the top end of the pyramid. A young man I know has just got himself a six-figure salary job with an international PR company. All the interviews for the job were online, he’s never met in the flesh any of his superiors or any of those in his ‘team’ now working for him, and no one expects him to turn up in an office until next year at the earliest. But the pay cheques are coming in and he just has to wander from bedroom to sitting room to earn them.

James Bardrick, the UK boss of Citigroup, articulated the shift in how work is to be done (at least in banking) in an interview on Today. He said of his employees: ‘If they can come to the office we expect them to come three days a week … The other two they can work, but not necessarily in the office’. What’s perhaps most striking in his remark is the concessionary way he expressed it: that it’s for the staff themselves to decide what they can and can’t do, and the bank will accommodate itself to them.

This reflects what will possibly prove to be the biggest change resulting from Covid: the shift in the balance of power between bosses and workers. For the last thirty odd years, it’s the bosses who’ve had the upper hand. Union membership, which gave collective strength to workers, peaked in the late 1970s and has been on a rapid decline ever since, a decline that largely tracked the withering of manufacturing as a share of the overall economy. And in the last decade wages have been stagnant (or worse) while capital’s share in income generated has risen. Zero hours contracts were perhaps the high watermark of employer dominance.

Now things are looking rather different. With demand in the economy taking off faster than the economy’s capacity to supply it, prices are rising – and that includes the price of labour. This may turn out to be temporary but if it isn’t, it will mean that workers will be able to dictate more of the terms on which they are employed than they have recently been used to doing. And that doesn’t just mean higher pay. It may well mean the whole agenda of working conditions.

I’m not suggesting that it’s all going to be like Silicon Valley where there seems no limit on what the very rich bosses will do to keep their workers sweet. At Bumble (the dating app that puts women on top), for example, workers are provided with free snacks whenever they want them, ping-pong tables to relieve the stress, and ‘nap pads’. And they’ve all just been given an extra week off, fully paid, in lieu of the ‘collective burnout’ they’ve all suffered recently. Facebook and LinkedIn have done something similar. All I’m suggesting is that, post-Covid, it looks as if workers will have a bigger say in how they want to work.

And that brings us back to the question: ‘what do we want’? It’s easy just to assume that no one in their right mind would want to go back to sweaty commutes, airless offices, only rare sightings of their children and ‘burnout’ at 32, when the ‘generational opportunity’ to change all that through flexi-working that keeps you at home, lets you work when you feel like it and decide for yourself when you ‘can’ and can’t go to work, is now available to us. But there’s loss involved in giving up the old way of working too. There’s the camaraderie of working with others in the flesh; there’s the greater understanding of what’s going on that comes only with actual physical contact and the reading of body language; there’s the opportunity to make new friends, have flings, go to the pub after work, just get out of the bloody house and so on.

And perhaps the greatest uncertainty of all is whether we do or don’t want to get back on what’s been called the ‘hedonic treadmill’ we were turfed off fifteen months ago. That’s the treadmill where we work to earn, and earn to spend and end up treading faster and faster so we can do more and more of all of it, risking burnout and serious danger to our health. Have we become addicted to it and just long to get hooked again?

Nearly a century ago the great economist, Maynard Keynes, predicted that by now we’d all have become so rich we’d only need to work about 15% of the time and could devote all the rest to ‘living’. For him, a product of Bloomsbury, ‘living’ meant leisure and cultivating civilised pursuits. It was not one of his better predictions. We’ve certainly become as rich as he forecast, even richer. But we’ve been working even harder and paring down leisure rather than expanding it. Ironically, it may be that this has happened because of one of his most perceptive insights: that modern economies can be kept going only if ‘demand’ is maintained. In other words, spending is the god we worship and work our necessary sacrifice.

The fundamental question that the ‘generational opportunity’ to treat work differently asks, is: do we still want spending to be our god, or has the last fifteen months changed our attitude to work forever?

What’s your view? Let us know.