PROSPER MAGAZINE: SPECIAL DIGITAL EDITION
CORONAVIRUS IS GIVING US A GLIMPSE OF THE FUTURE OF WORK – AND IT CAN BE A BIT OF A NIGHTMARE
Working at home during the Coronavirus pandemic, and subsequently forced lockdown can, for many, mean more family stress - more housework, more childcare and more juggling, while virtual work has no knocking-off time.
Prosper asks, will this end along with the lockdown? Don’t bet on it!
Wasn’t it charming when, in 2017, Prof Robert Kelly was giving an interview to the BBC on the shifting relationship between North and South Korea, and his marvellous daughter stomped in followed by his baby in a walker, and then his stressed-out wife dragged the kids out of the way?
We loved the way he tried to keep his composure in the storm of domestic chaos. That glimpse of home life: the serious man with his geopolitical analysis and the swagger of his little girl who couldn’t care less … who didn’t relate to that?
In work mode, children do not figure. And now that so many work from home, children must be somehow removed.
Women report that, when making Zoom calls, the sight of a child will make them look unprofessional, whereas men fear this less because it makes them look rounded and human. At a certain level of corporate success, this may be so, but for most people, the reality of work from home is fraught and muddled.
Although women are more often than not the ones to stay at home with children, the lockdown has now put many fathers in a position they haven’t experienced before.
Craig Wilkinson, aka The Dad Coach, said, “I have heard many varied stories. Some Dads are really struggling with it, some are finding ways to introduce fun into the enforced confinement and some are finding it a blessing in disguise as they are spending much more time with their children than before, but defiantly most are finding the need to introduce structure, routine and discipline.”
Sentiments echoed by Richard Brooks, membership adviser at the Black Country Chamber, he told Prosper, “Apart from the obvious concerns for safety, the lockdown has been great! Spending more time with the family has been a blessing, breaking a somewhat robotic lifestyle has been a long time coming.
“We are blessed there are two of us to support the kids from home, the PS4 and WIFI are great bargaining tools.
“My wife is a key worker, but she can provide most of the support to people she works with over the phone. She only has to go out occasionally to provide ‘safe and well’ checks on vulnerable children out in the community when needed.
“We have managed to instil a flexible framework for the kids to learn with an emphasis on four things a day; work set by the school and by us as parents, independent reading and something active to keep them fit.”
According to the Office for National Statistics, only 5% of the UK labour force worked from home in 2019, in recent weeks that figure has dramatically increased as a result of the pandemic.
With more and more people working from home it is likely that both parents are trying to work from the kitchen table while also attempting to home school their children.
Head of Fundraising for Acorn’s Children’s Hospice, Vicki Rowles said, “I am extremely fortunate that I work for not only a wonderful cause but also a charity that is very understanding; they are adaptable employers and I have an amazing team of people.
“As a working mom of two school-age children, the ability to work from home has been both a blessing and a logistical nightmare. Of course, I am grateful that I can keep my children home and safe during these unprecedented and worrying times, but this has also bought its own set of challenges.
“Homeschooling - Am I doing enough?.
"Will they fall behind when they return to school? Are they taking too much ‘screen time? How do I remain a focused and effective leader for the team? How do I ensure I create the right balance of expectation and being supportive to help my team achieve great things for Acorns families?
“I know the future will look very different but now I’m simply trying to be the best version of me in all my roles - mom, partner, fundraiser, leader, colleague and friend".
As the pandemic has progressed it has shone a light on the old work-life balance, for some, never quite achieved in the first place, and is now even more severely out of whack. Balance? It is walking a tightrope of competing needs.
Sarah Walker, who heads up the Chamber Military Network is mom to girls age 11 and 14, she said, “Spending time with the family has been very positive, but the difficult thing for me is where does ‘work me’ begin and ‘mum me’ end?. Not being able to switch off from either has been the hardest challenge of all.”
Virtual work has no knockoff time: email, WhatsApp and the dreaded, supposedly upbeat, Zoom meetings mean workers are available all the time.
This inflexibility is then somehow sold as flexibility, but it assumes the worker is always primed for contact. The remote worker is, for some companies, the ideal worker. They don’t need a desk or expensive office space. They don’t need a union. They are malleable and compliant at a time when we are all concerned with the job losses to come. They may not be quite as productive, but they are doing enough to make many big companies think this is the future.
This future can sound bright. No more commuting. Everyone can go and live in the countryside, which we have apparently all hankered for during lockdown. We quit the city and can then afford home offices.
Only none of it quite delivers. Most people who talk this talk already have a spare room in their house. Most of them earn enough and most of them chose self-employment rather than having it foisted upon them.
What we do need is to rethink how we work, and the answer cannot be an atomised and depressed workforce.
People like to see each other - in real life.
If anything, this situation reminds us that there is something about human contact, even eye contact, that no tech can yet produce. Spontaneity and laughter are missing from stilted digital events.
Whenever you ask people about where they got their career breaks or great ideas, it is nearly always from chance encounters; a snatched conversation on the way to lunch or being asked to step in when someone else was too busy.
But how are young people, who already can’t afford city rents, to work in their cramped flats or when surrounded by family groups? When do they get the opportunity to fly, to improvise, to step up to the plate in informal ways? Face-to-face interaction matters.
Serendipity is the mother of creation.
As we all start to come out of lockdown, a lot of workers will be asked to tolerate some very odd conditions, and this will be done in the business jargon of “resilience”, “restructuring” and “change agents”.
The workforce will be told this new way of working promises flexibility – but enforced flexibility is not the same as a choice, which is what most want: purposeful work and some autonomy.
For too many, work is not purposeful, and the lockdown has brought that home, literally – but people need incomes. Those on zero-hours contracts already know that flexibility is a one-way street.
A post-COVID-19 future must not underestimate the importance of this to economic recovery.
The social part is what makes work bearable for many.
For the lucky few, work-life balance feels better than it ever was, but for many, it is far from that.