September 23, 2020
The debate about the effects of the pandemic on working life appears to have entered its next phase. Don’t ask me to define it precisely because I’m still coming to terms with the others. But here it is.
This iteration coincides with the UK government’s latest pronouncement on it all, although that too may have been ‘clarified’ in some way by the time you read this. Apparently people should now work from home if they can.
This may spark off the Big-endians and Little-endians to reignite their knackered binary spat that I had hoped was now restricted to local newspapers and assorted rags. Those include The Independent which likes to prove constantly how capable it is of taking an interesting article and befouling it with bad editing and a stupid headline. Which, let’s face it, is all most people will absorb.
So, anyway, let them bicker pointlessly about whether ‘the office is dead’ or not and why we should all just get ‘back to work’. The real, adult discussion is far more interesting.
The Economist has been in the vanguard of whatever nuanced and informed analysis has managed to make itself heard above the noise. One of the most recent examples is here, which correctly identifies the issue of productivity as the key to it all.
“The extent to which home-working remains popular long after the pandemic has passed will depend on a bargain between companies and workers. But it will also depend on whether companies embrace or reject the controversial theory that working from an office might actually impede productivity.”
Of course, the issue of productivity is something of a two-edged sword and even if it weren’t there are indications that working from home doesn’t necessarily make people more productive in the longer term either. There are some signs that people are getting worn out, although it’s important to acknowledge that the way we are living right now is far from normal so we should be wary of making forecasts based solely on current experiences.
Even so, we can expect to see far more stories such as the those related to the concern expressed by executives at J P Morgan about the productivity of remote workers and their changing attitudes. This comes literally days after the firm was being highlighted as a pioneer of the ‘new normal’ by commentators on social media. Expect more of this kind of backtracking. And don’t trust anything from anybody who uses the phrase ‘new normal’.
There are also signs that some of the issues I predicted are now coming to pass, including the need for firms to treat people’s homes as genuine workplaces and what that means in terms of health and safety, legislation, insurance and so on.
This article from Forbes raises the issue in a somewhat catastrophising way before suggesting that firms should inspect people’s homes every three months. If people objected to the corporate panopticon before when it was all about the open plan, just wait till the movements of their eyes and fingers are logged in real time, and they are visited every few weeks and told to convert a bedroom into an office, check their insurance, replace the carpet on their stairs and stop smoking in their own homes.
One of the other voices to heed is Bruce Daisley, who regularly seeks out the complex reactions people are having to a complex situation such as in this piece, in which various business leaders and Jerry Seinfeld share their views on what will become of work, offices and cities.
Seinfeld’s take, originally published in The New York Times, is interesting because he highlights an abstract point about presence which is often overlooked in all our talk about productivity and efficiency. “Real, live, inspiring human energy exists when we coagulate together in crazy places”, he says.
He is echoing the thoughts of Hannah Arendt, for lots of reasons the philosopher most relevant for our times. In her book The Life of the Mind, she identifies how our very existence depends on our ability to take the stage before others.
“In contrast to the inorganic thereness of lifeless matter, living beings are not mere appearances. To be alive means to be possessed by an urge toward self-display which answers the fact of one’s own appearingness. Living things make their appearance like actors on a stage set for them. The stage is common to all who are alive, but it seems different to each species, different also to each individual specimen. Seeming—the it-seems-to-me, dokei moi—is the mode, perhaps the only possible one, in which an appearing world is acknowledged and perceived. To appear always means to seem to others, and this seeming varies according to the standpoint and the perspective of the spectators. In other words, every appearing thing acquires, by virtue of its appearingness, a kind of disguise that may indeed—but does not have to—hide or disfigure it. Seeming corresponds to the fact that every appearance, its identity notwithstanding, is perceived by a plurality of spectators.”
Main image: From Édouard Manet – Un bar aux Folies-Bergère, Creative Commons
Mark is the publisher of Workplace Insight, IN magazine, Works magazine and is the European Director of Work&Place journal. He has worked in the office design and management sector for over thirty years as a journalist, marketing professional, editor and consultant.