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. 

from Brenda in Hove, UK: Scouting for Home Deliveries. 4 April

I am finding scouting for businesses that make home deliveries very time consuming. The big supermarkets have limited ‘slots’ and I have not succeeded in getting a single one. My book club put together or found a list of small providers and I happily resorted to a couple of them. I was pleased that at least some businesses would benefit from all this disruption. The results have been bizarre – or I have lost my mind in the process. I have the biggest carton of ice cream you have ever seen; we had to take a drawer out of the freezer to accommodate it. I have a huge roll of kitchen towelling which will last me the rest of my life (and I still feel quite well, thank you), I have dozens of bottles of peach tea and a box of 48 twirls (chocolate). The delivery man could not contain himself on this last one: “I hope you enjoy your chocolates” (heavy sarcasm). “It is possible they will save my life,” I replied. What does he know of what I laughingly call ‘my life’?  

3 April. Spare a thought for all the parents who have school age children and are now compelled to work from home. I hear stories of the managers (whose children have grown up and who clearly have short memories) calling virtual meetings at any hour that suits them – and with no regard for the parents struggling to keep children occupied, home schooled and indoors who have to attend those meetings. Children dart in and out of the video frame and distract not only the parent. I had to meet with a lawyer yesterday to update my will and enjoyed the charming sight of him meeting me from a baby girls’ nursery.  He handled the off camera sounds with an ease one could only admire. 

Some of parents are single mothers who already had a difficult enough time juggling work commitments, kid’s homework and other demands – and now are required to manage all three simultaneously.  In the UK single parent families make up one quarter of families with dependent children (see Gingerbread.org.uk). One’s mind boggles. 

We are led to believe that working from home is something to be encouraged anyway and this enforced period will demonstrate how beneficial it will be. For some, maybe! It is indeed possible that productivity will actually increase for those without the distractions of office or children – but those with children will be judged on the same performance criteria and their productivity cannot but decrease. Managers and Human Resource people need to talk about this before harsh decisions are made and some careers badly damaged.