From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: The future of work

A difficult in writing these diary entries is that of generalising from a distinctly skewed perspective.  All of us are different, but some occupy more specialised slots than others.

This fact applies in particular to one of the major questions in the pandemic, the future of work.  Just about every office worker has been sent home.  Now Boris Johnson wants them back in their place of employment, if only to restore the income flows of sandwich shops and the vendors of the clothes people think they need to wear when outside the house.  So far, the indication is that many are declining the invitation, partly because it has been issued at just the moment when all schools are on holiday and child care problems are once more multiplying, and partly because of very real fears about a renewed threat of infection in a country which has far from conquered the coronavirus.

Beyond these relatively short-term issues is the question of whether the larger part of the workforce will want to resume their office lives.  On the upside is no more commuting, more time with a family, no need to dress up at the beginning of the day (see above on vendors).  On the down side there is mounting evidence that home-working reinforces inequalities (an office is an office; no one charges you rent for it, decides whether you can afford a desk), weakens already limited trade union protection (with some employers already exploring technologies that will monitor what happens in your home), and above all crowds out that part of your life which is not work.

I ought to be an expert on this topic.  I have at least partially home-worked since my first pay-packet.  Every word of every book and article I have published has been written in a room in whatever house we were living in.  On the wall in my current study is a photograph of my son, when a small baby, wrapped in a shawl, fast asleep in the open bottom drawer of my desk while I labour above him.  He did have a cot.  It was just that we had developed a very particular and privileged mix of work, child-rearing and domestic pleasures.

In my first university, where we raised our family, I had total discretion as to where, how and when I earned my living.  We lived during the week in campus accommodation, ranging from a starter flat to a family house.  My journey to work never exceeded an eight-minute walk.  I could transfer myself from study to office and back as and when the need arose, or I just felt like a change of company.  All the choices about where I was and what I was doing were mine.  Other than turning up for timetabled teaching commitments and departmental meetings, I was, like most academics of my generation, at least in the humanities and social sciences, under no instruction at any point about my labour.

At Keele, the sum total of advice I received on how to undertake my work during almost three decades was as follows:

Young lecturer, not yet completed probation, on meeting Head of Department in a corridor: ‘Paul, you might like to know that my PhD has been approved.’

HoD:  ‘That’s good.  You can take it easy now.’

Then I went to the Open University, the higher education institution where home-working has long been the norm rather than the exception.

So what do I know about the challenges facing the modern office worker?  Not much, except perhaps this one truth.  Bullying employers and inconsiderate colleagues will always be a problem.  The major challenge, however, is self-discipline.  This applies not just to the decision when to start in the morning rather than sit around in the kitchen with another cup of coffee and an unfinished newspaper, but far more importantly, when to stop.  There will be backsliding, but the real threat is self-exploitation, going back to emails in the evening or the weekend, never turning off to engage with the life of the home or with personal interests outside employment. 

Go out to work.  See more of your family. 

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