How will we work?

25 November 2020
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Ewan Aitken CEO writes on the experience of working from home, and how 'a new model must be person-centred, maximising the ability for human connection and community building':

The one thing I knew when the call came from our political leaders to work from home, was doing so would not be a new experience for me. 

My first job when I left school was as a youth work in Glasgow. The model was detached youth work which involved “being present with, to accompany, to be beside” those we were seeking to support.  I was given a flat in the area I worked and was, for all intents and purposes, always on duty. There was no office, only the flat and the streets in which I spent much of my time.

In the mid-eighties I worked for a student charity in Bristol which involved, amongst other things, running a small residential community where my office was next door to my bedroom. When I was a parish minister, I lived in a tied house and again my office was next to my bedroom. As a politician there was rarely an evening or a weekend when I wasn’t sitting in the small bedroom come office of our house catching up on correspondence and emails, reading reports and making calls.

All this meant the work never went away. It was always present and the mental, as well as physical boundaries, were often blurred. Over the years I learnt to cope but I know it has taken its toll, not least of which in the struggle to give myself “permission”, not just stop physically working, but to switch off mentally from thinking about the work (sitting mere feet away from me) still needing to be done.

At least in those days I could much more easily go and do other things; cinema, theatre, sport, the pub, time with friends and family, eating out, and so on. The problem with right now is these sorts of helpful delineators are much less available; which is why I worry about the “we are never going back to the office” narrative currently gaining a great deal of momentum.

There are many advantages about home working - the lack of a commute for example, saves time and in many cases contributes to a better environment. Yet several people I have spoken with tell me they miss their commute because it was when they geared up to be ready for work and/or decompressed on their way home. Once their front door was shut behind them, work was literally behind them and the rest of life was ready and waiting. Microsoft have introduced a new “virtual commute” feature to teams because it’s clear most people are now just working those commute hours. In theory this is a good move by Microsoft, but to me this is a worrying indication of the problems our new working model will have if we allow ourselves to simply keep going, even after the pandemic is over.

Even if we have more delineators available to us, things which we can do to take us from our working life to relaxation mode, we could if we are not careful, create a culture which places our working selves and our non-working selves in such conflict as to be unhealthy.

There is a pre-pandemic working model called “Results Only Work Environment” which suggests removing 9 – 5 working parameters and instead encourage people to work when and where they will get the best results. It sounds wonderfully flexible, but in truth is rooted in the individual choice narrative which is a manifestation of neoliberal individualism. Working when it suits you best sounds great but it requires a number of things to align, not least of which - having a job which allows for such flexibility in the first place.

It also requires you to have a particular type of personal resilience and lifestyle which means the blurring of boundaries is not a challenge logistically and emotionally. As this critique here shows, such flexibility can feel as much like “blowing helpless in the wind” as it does “riding the waves”. Boundaries around our working lives should not always be seen as restrictions. They can help us know what is expected of us and when; they are part of the permission process for us to switch off from our working life and into the other parts of our life which matter too. Without rest and relaxation, in whatever form we find suits us best, our capacity to work well will be impacted.

My fear is, driven by those most emotive of words “efficiency and progress” and framed around moving towards the “new normal”, we will lose sight of the potential negative impact of a change to a less boundaried working model which we haven’t really fully assessed the impact of yet. 

I have no doubt many of us will change how and where we work. The role of the office in particular will change dramatically and so it should. But this is no binary “good/bad” debate demanding we move from one model of working to another discarding all the practices of the first model, regardless of whether they served us. It needs to be much more nuanced, and must recognise that in order to be effective it needs to be person-centred, built on maximising the ability for human connection and community building, and less on being so flexible it destroys the boundaries which keep us healthy.