In the early days of 2020 news of an exotic virus emerged from the Far East. We watched the coverage as if it were a disaster montage from a Hollywood blockbuster – the fevered talking heads debating its status as a global killer/invention of a mysterious global elite, fleeting images of caged animals in Wuhan wet markets, futuristic law enforcement clearing the streets, and grainy social media footage of patients strewn in corridors, struggling for breath. Yet it seemed distant and we kept calm and carried on, as we had through previous viral outbreaks.
After all, who of us knew anyone who had succumbed to SARS or Avian flu? These things were as foreign to us as bullet trains and pangolin stew. As it turns out, Covid-19 did not share our haughty indifference and by mid-March we were effectively under house arrest: prisoners in our homes, with allotted exercise times and ‘bring your kid to work day’ every single day.
Around 250 days later we have some indication of how the great reset will affect our working practices. But little thought has gone into how we can use this opportunity to reshape our communities, improve that elusive work-life balance and create authentic strategies to boost the wellbeing of a nation which was already struggling pre-pandemic.
Some estimates put the number of remote workers in the UK today as high as 50% of the total. For employers there are a number of benefits to this – reduced office costs, increased staff retention, environmental benefits, and a wider talent pool to choose from as geography becomes moot. So far, the limited data emerging from this office 2.0 appears to show higher levels of morale and happiness among employees. This is perhaps borne out in higher productivity among those set free from the grindstone of the contemporary, open-plan, battery-farm office and the drudgery of the standing-room-only train that steals years from your life.
Remote working is not without its problems, though. It removes us from many of the social interactions and relationships that are key to our species and that play an important developmental role in what we call civilisation. The emergence of video conferencing as a panacea may not in fact be the key to future working practices. The thousand yard stare of the Zoom attendee will probably be with us forever now, but without mitigating the psychological effects on employees isolated from human interactions there is a risk we are marching like lemmings towards a mental health cliff usually more familiar to the elderly and disabled.
It may be that on seeing the financial and productivity benefits many employers will vigorously promote remote working as a route to bottom-line growth, but the cost to society will be more difficult to illustrate on a spreadsheet. So why not look for smarter ways of remote working that can bring benefits to both employers and society?
There are a number of advantages advanced by proponents of the work-life balance – shorter commutes, a four-day week, less reliance on childcare, flexible working hours and focus on individual wellbeing. All of these are, on the face of it, entirely reasonable. But what are we doing to rethink and reshape our infrastructure to meet the changes expedited by coronavirus? We’re in danger of missing an opportunity to adapt the fabric of our towns and regenerate the stagnant suburbs where we choose to live.
How then do we create the structures which will serve this new workforce, which is reversing the great industrial-age exodus from the rural to the factory, with all of the social and health issues it brought? We may not be facing typhoid or severe overcrowding, but this trend will bring its own problems.
Wander through any provincial town and you’ll find a mix of empty commercial properties and charity shops. For many commuters, the imposition of lockdown has properly exposed them to the graveyard of their local community for the first time in years. They have walked those streets bemoaning the disheartening array of bookmakers and pawn shops, as they seek a quinoa salad among the odour of lorne sausage and despair. Until recently, these people would have driven blindly past, stuffing a late breakfast in their face and rushing to drop the kids at school before crawling for an hour at speeds that would shame a horse and cart, glaring at the red lights of their vehicular enemies and seeking a small window to slip one car in front, so shortening their journey by as much as twenty seconds.
The requirements for remote working are fairly basic: you need a desk and access to the internet. These things are within most people’s grasp. Beyond making some changes to the home to accommodate this set-up, there is a need for national and local government to devise a strategy which will bring the global world to the defunct local main street. How better to regenerate your town than to encourage workers into it? This age of internet shopping and out-of-town mega-centres will likely mean the traditional high street will never return. But perhaps lockdowns have shown us the value in embracing our locales as more than places to eat and sleep.
Is there a local authority willing to stick out its neck out and provide flexible working spaces for remote workers? This may be a loss leader in the first instance, but business development has long been a strategic investment tool of the state – now, more than ever, they have an opportunity to effect real change. Is it beyond the capabilities of the state to fit out buildings in its ownership to provide a space for individuals to work in?
Imagine having a workplace to which you can cycle or walk after dropping the kids at school in under 15 minutes, where you can undertake the banal social interactions we all take for granted, where you can share ideas with a disparate group of individuals offering expertise in varying fields, where you can glean new, efficient work practices, where you can participate in your community, and where it is frowned upon to sit around in your elasticated leisurewear.
It is surely possible this could generate higher productivity from employees who can reduce their hours a little and work more flexibly in a setting which nourishes their wellbeing, rather than being stuck in a form of solitary confinement. We could always give it a year or two to find out.
Every empty state-owned property is a drain on income and councils have spent years and millions of pounds trying to increase footfall in their towns and promote local businesses. Making the commute by cycling or walking has long been an objective of the state, but not many are willing to pedal the M8 at 8:15am. It’s surely reasonable to predict that more people would choose to ditch the car if their destination was within a few miles. From a health perspective the state is already seeing wellbeing as a priority and what better way to improve it than by promoting economic recovery, exercise and social cohesion?
We have a choice to make, and we have time to implement changes while we await the effects of the vaccination programme. The only question is whether the desire is there to create something that would be better for us and for our communities.
David Goodwin is a development worker in the Scottish voluntary sector. He is writing in a personal capacity