It’s been just three weeks since the prime minister, who already works from home, told us all to do the same. Back in those halcyon days of 100 per cent wages and three-ply loo roll, many advocates of flexible working saw Boris’s instruction as a watershed moment. Could the workplace revolution we had all been waiting for, the end of the Victorian practice known as the “working week”, have been born in a wet market in Wuhan? Perhaps we had a fever.
When we’re on the other side of this crisis, there will be lessons to learn from how we worked through it; hopefully, many employers will realise they can give their workers greater flexibility, and the world won’t end. However, I’m not quite sure that working from home in the midst of a pandemic is the kind of flexible working anyone should champion.
Whether you’re doing compressed hours or staggered shifts, flexible working is not just the ability to work remotely, but the ability to determine one’s own routine. Right now, few have that ability.
Parents trying to juggle working from home with school closures find themselves working through the night, squeezing in work around naptimes and sharing shifts with their other halves. For single parents, especially those who are self-employed and face a two-month wait for government relief, the challenge is greater still. Meanwhile, workers without children find the boundaries between the personal and professional begin to slip; your kitchen table is now where you earn a living, eat and socialise.
Three weeks ago, it may have been tempting to laud flexible working as a way of navigating coronavirus, but there’s nothing flexible about being beholden to a killer virus – or to a two-year-old who urinates on your laptop during a Zoom meeting, for that matter. Employees want flexible working, but this isn’t it. This is an emergency response to a global pandemic, not a blueprint for the future of work. There danger is employers won’t see it that way.
Employers that have previously resisted flexible working might be tempted to see this period as proof that the practice hinders productivity, choosing to ignore context. Similarly, employees might be horrified at the thought of spending any more time in the confines of their homes, and enthusiastically return to the place they had previously spent Sunday nights dreading. Sure, we’ll see an initial uplift in productivity rooted in renewed human connection, and for a time, the pendulum might swing the other way. But it won’t last, and eventually the conversation will come back to flexible working. Not because it’s convenient; not because it’s the intersection of so many challenges we face, from air pollution and overcrowding to work-life balance; but because at the heart of flexible working is the autonomy humans crave. We have spent generations as square pegs fitting ourselves into round holes in order to serve a capitalist economy that doesn’t serve us, suppressing our creativity into neatly, contractually defined hours. If we learn anything from months of being forced to stay home, it will be the value of freedom. Lockdown might not be a model of how to work flexibly, but it is a reminder of why we want to.
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