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Has the pandemic changed the way we work for good?

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For the last decade, public discussion of work has been obsessed with the question of whether robots will take our jobs, a framing I have always dismissed as reductive. What matters is how technology affects social relationships, how it changes the jobs we do, and how our labour is exploited in the name of our need to earn a living under the increasing influence of technologies that displace human labour and, in the case of artificial intelligence, even human judgement.

The rise of work from home (WFH) shines a particular light on these matters, and it will have ongoing effects on how we organise not just work, but society more generally.

A recent report by the Productivity Commission tells us that ‘approximately 35 per cent of workers have jobs amenable to working from home,’ but that before the pandemic, only around 8 per cent of people availed themselves of the option. 

Now, even as lockdown restrictions are lifted, the number of people working from home is closer to 40 per cent. (In the US, the figure is as high as 60 per cent.)

We are also in the midst of what is being called ‘the Great Resignation’, with millions of workers rethinking the place of work in their lives, and WFH is a huge part of this.

According to a report by Microsoft, ‘over 40 per cent of the global workforce [is] considering leaving their employer this year’ and hybrid work — a combination of home and office work — is here to stay:

Employees want the best of both worlds: over 70 per cent of workers want flexible remote work options to continue, while over 65 per cent are craving more in-person time with their teams. ...The data is clear. Extreme flexibility and hybrid work will define the post-pandemic workplace.

It is not a coincidence that we are also seeing a move towards a shorter working week.

This has always been one of the ways in which technological changes are accommodated by labour markets, and the whole notion of a weekend and annual leave, for instance, are about managing the fact that less time needs to be devoted to paid labour. At the moment, though, we are suffering the worst of both worlds. 

Instead of increased leisure time, we are getting more precarious work with increasing underemployment, and to address that we need society-wide agreements to maintain wages levels while reducing hours worked, which means we need to think about work outside the usual boxes we put it in.

In this respect, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a game-changer, busting open age-old views on work and showing us that big, rapid change is possible. 

Still, while the advantages of WFH have been undeniable, such a transformation has downsides, and it is yet another way in which Covid has highlighted stark social divisions within our society. University of Chicago research makes clear that the benefits of WFH ‘are especially large for the better educated and the highly paid’, and this should be a red flag. 

Not everyone can access WFH options, and we have to think carefully about what work we consider important or even essential. ‘Highly paid’ and ‘highly educated’ are not the relevant criteria, as Lizzie O’Shea reminds us:

Without the work done by people in [so-called] unskilled jobs, society would cease to function. Building and construction unions have long used the slogan ‘We built this city’. Barbara Ehrenreich recently spoke about her truck driver friend ‘who likes to point out that every single thing I get in the supermarket was delivered there by truck. Nothing works without people like him.’ The same is true for jobs in food preparation, customer service delivery and many other kinds of unskilled occupations. People who stock our supermarket shelves and help us access food and clothing are essential to our survival.

Another big issue is childcare, and part of the success of Australia’s initial transition to WFH was government provision of affordable childcare. As that was withdrawn, people had to employ workarounds, such as using their paid leave to manage family and work from home, and as Danielle Wood, CEO of the Grattan Institute points out, most of that burden falls on woman:

During last year’s lockdowns, we saw both mothers and fathers shouldering a big increase in unpaid hours thanks to remote learning and childcare closures. But mothers took on more of the extra care, on top of an already higher load. 

...And any reduction in paid work will further widen the already gaping $2 million difference in lifetime earnings between men and women with children.

And then there is real estate. With fewer workers in cities, the service industries associated with having people concentrated in a CBD are affected: everyone from café workers to city gyms to hairdressers and nail salons find their ability to earn a living threatened.

Beyond that, the geographic decentralisation that occurs as people work from home has enormous impacts on real estate prices in suburbs and in the regions. Towns like Port Fairy in Victoria, for instance, are seeing an influx of Melbourne work-from-homers putting pressure on housing stocks, whether they are for rent or for sale.

WFH also creates concerns about loss of corporate culture, of losing the serendipity of having like-minded workers under the one roof, and about how, in a dispersed work environment, firms understand productivity. It likely means shifting from an emphasis on measuring outputs to measuring inputs, such as hours worked, as a way of monitoring staff behaviour.

Some firms are resisting WFH on these grounds alone, though others, such as Australian tech firm Atlassian, are seeing the advantages and have said that, ‘Teams should not be bound by the constraints of an entire organization’s routines and rhythms’ and that ‘Outcomes realized and not hours spent are what matter.’

Whatever the pros and cons, it has become apparent that WFH is now a legitimate consideration for workers in negotiating pay and conditions, either at an individual or enterprise level. Employers and workers in the public and private sectors are involved in ongoing discussions about how to best manage what is likely to be a permanent transition to hybrid working practices.

For our democracies, the key question is about how evenly the benefits of these changes might be shared, and to understand that we need to consider WFH in a multifaceted way. Work is never just about work, but about the kind of life we get to lead and even how we understand our own identities.

To realise the potential of these changes, we need to throw out the neoliberal doctrine of the past forty years and reinvigorate the idea that we live in a society not an economy. That means understanding that governments have a role in ensuring the benefits of changes in technology and new working arrangements help everyone, not just the lucky few, by rethinking public policy from the ground up, especially unemployment benefits and childcare.

Let’s not waste this opportunity, especially with the even bigger challenge of climate change already threating disruption that will make Covid look like a blip.



Tim DunlopTim Dunlop is an author who has written extensively on Universal Basic Income and the future of work. His books, Workless (2016) and The Future of Everything (2019) deal with both topics, and he has been a keynote speaker at national and international events on these subjects, including the 2019 Decent Work Forum in Seoul.

Main image: Mother working from home with a baby. (J art / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Tim Dunlop, Covid-19, pandemic, work from home, Great Resignation



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Existing comments

The family situation and type of work are certainly critical to the effectiveness of working from home. My employer gave some slack to employees with young families and I certainly felt for them. I was able to negotiate working from home permanently as well as part time since I am in late career, also not having to deal with children at home any more. I have noticed that for single people, WFH is difficult because it is isolating. My employer is encouraging people to at least spend 1 day a week at the office, but has taken advantage of WFH by eliminating a second office and moving to half- size head office with all except the executive having hot desks. The employer is saving a lot of money and many employees don’t have to commute. Productivity in my case is easily assessed by my output. I just sit in front of a computer all day and meetings use Teams. Operational staff of course still need to be on site.

Frank S | 29 October 2021  

WFH won’t affect society as much as current societal divisions.
The Brexit/Trump victories exposed the new gap between the globalists (multinationals, banks, big tech, media and political class) and the localists (middle classes). Former Marxist, Michael Rectenwald, wrote of a new alliance between the Woke and the wealthy, resulting from self-interest.
In “The Age of Entitlement”, Christopher Caldwell notes how the wealthy seek to protect their wealth by preventing strong majorities from forming. They support an anti-majoritarian political system, and so shovel donations into radical causes which fragments the nation and prevent the formation of majorities.
COVID was “God’s gift to the Left” said millionaire Jane Fonda, and billionaires like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos vastly increase their wealth, while radical administrations used lockdowns that destroyed middle-class businesses. Big business supports BLM whose riots destroyed small businesses, many owned by blacks, which meant more business for Amazon and more people dependent on big government.
No longer the party of FDR and JFK, the US Democratic Party’s base now consists of the wealthy who profit from their personal and business relationships with government, and at the other end of the spectrum, the poor, dependent on that same government. Back to lords and serfs?

Ross Howard | 29 October 2021  

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