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Has the pandemic changed the way we work for good?

  • 26 October 2021
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