As the Covid Age has gone on, the more obsessive anti-lockdown campaigners have become ever-more emboldened in their demands that we abandon any and all efforts to stop the spread of a virus that has – lest we forget – killed a lot of people, and has the possibility of mutating into something even more lethal, and return to exactly the world that we left in March, throwing out even the most sensible or minor of social improvements along the way. Re-open schools. Abandon social distancing. Stop wearing masks. And get back to going out to work right now.
The latter is the oddest demand because if the lockdown has shown us anything, it is that we don’t all need to be going to the office for eight hours a day, five days a week. It was something that made sense once, but now needs to be confined to history. And yet the demands that it resumes, in exactly the same way that it was six months ago, are increasingly relentless and weirdly angry – and often coming from people who, of course, don’t have to do it themselves. To watch government minister Grant Schapps insisting that everyone gets right back onto the rat race of the daily commute because it is now safe to do so from a webcam in his home office was quite staggering. Do as I say, not as I do, presumably.
I don’t doubt that for shop workers, warehouse staff, postmen, bar staff and others, there must be a certain resentment that other people are reluctant to return to the office (which is, it seems we have to point out, a completely different thing than ‘returning to work’), but that’s life. Not every job is the same, and to bitterly insist that others are forced out of their home just because you are is rather petty. The fact is, there is very little reason that most people need to rock up to an office every day any more. My last two ‘real’ jobs, as a copywriter and a photo editor, could have easily been done more effectively at home – my employers in at least one of those jobs were literally pissing money away on expensive offices where one or two staff would sit working on computers. Equally, Mrs R has been working from home since March, attending daily Zoom meetings and has been no less efficient – if anything, she’s probably done more. Yet angry bloggers and tweeters seem incensed that people are not being made to go to an office to do the same thing that they’ve been doing perfectly well at home for half a year. “If they won’t go back, then fire them all, the bedwetters” shouted one particularly mouth-foaming Tweeter last week. Politicians, newspaper columnists and conspiracy theory-driven ‘Covid is all made up anyway’ lunatics all seem obsessed with how awful it is to work from home, while trying to present the average office as some sort of social club/holiday resort, which suggests that their experience of being an office drone is rather limited.
To justify why it is somehow better for people to have to spend eight hours or so in a soulless office, plus another couple of hours crammed onto over-crowded trains or buses travelling back and forth, the anti-home working crowd tie themselves in knots. It’s unhealthy to live and work in the same place, they cry, even though most of the columnists pushing this theory will do precisely that every day. People will be missing the banter of work, says Jeremy Hunt, who might well not have any real friends and so relies on associating with Parliamentary chums – but the rest of us can chat online, or even meet up in pubs now if we actually like our work colleagues (and let’s be fair – co-workers are like family members, forced on you through circumstance, not choice, and are more likely to be intolerable idiots than best friends). Where will young people meet potential partners, ask others who are apparently unfamiliar with both a #metoo world where chatting up a colleague is fraught with the danger of being accused of harassment should your advances not be welcome, and the way young people tend to meet now. Tinder, anyone?
Look, I get it: some people want things to go back to exactly how they were. For them, nothing good – not even an increased awareness of personal and public hygiene or the ability for people to no longer be part of the rat race – has come of all this, and like anyone with a fixation on tradition, they just want things to return to how they were (for some of them, that would be the 1950s, but there are usually limits to what people can express publicly without exposing themselves as cranks or bigots). And I’m not saying that working at home is entirely perfect – there are two of us working in one room here, and it can be difficult from time to time. But of course, ‘working from home’ doesn’t necessarily mean the place you live in – there are cafes, bars, parks and gardens that allow a change of scenery. But home working allows people breathing space, better sleep patterns, less stress and more family time. It means we don’t have to cram onto tube trains that, even pre-Corona, felt like health hazards at rush hour as they were packed to the point where no one could move and everyone treated it as though it was normal. It means that businesses don’t have to run up huge bills renting and running offices. It opens up the workforce for disabled people and parents and means that your workforce can be based anywhere. It allows people the chance to work the hours that are most suited to them – work based on results rather than regulated time spent doing it.
Not every office job will be suited to home working. And not everyone will like it – God knows, there are the oddballs who seem to relish spending every waking hour at the office, and it could make brown-nosing the boss that bit harder – but equally, not everyone likes getting up at six in the morning, arriving home at seven in the evening and then having to go to bed by ten either. Office work increasingly feels like a pointless hangover from the 20th century, as out of date as the typing pool and the kipper tie – and we should be encouraging and celebrating its demise.