Work in the Time of COVID

Image by the author

The term COVID-19 is utterly unattractive and yet the social change it has catalysed has its attractions and distractions, not to mention its special dispensations.

I’m tempted to rattle off a couple of dot points in the dichotomous fashion of good/bad, pros/cons etc. and leave it at that. But then why bother writing at all? Yes, precisely. Therefore, I will set out a few nice little paragraphs and see what happens. What I’m going to focus on is obviously a reflection of my interests and personal situation: educated male living in a single-person household in the inner city. But I’m hoping that at least some of my observations will find common ground.

Depending on the type of work you do, one of the overwhelming advantages of working from home is the absence of commuting time. I usually spend two hours a day travelling to and from work. I am not paid for this anachronistic exertion. In fact I am obliged to pay for it in time and money. To pass the time I read a book, look out the window (I bus, not drive a car) or scroll through my device(s). But I’d rather not do any of these activities as a way of countering the monotony and boredom of travelling to and from the office.

Now, if you enjoy commuting to work by foot or bicycle because it’s the only exercise you get each week, then it’s perfectly understandable that you don’t take a sunny view about losing your special commute time. But consider this, if you don’t have to ride or walk to work, then you can ride and walk whenever you like (I can hear my manager clearing her throat) so long as it doesn’t interrupt your overall productivity.

The most exquisite thing about working from home is that as soon as you finish work for the day there is no need to contend with traffic snarls, surly bus drivers, and the esoteric habits of annoying strangers. One is simply home and ready to enjoy one’s own time.

Do you remember the time when you had to wait until after work, or until the weekend (or if you were totally organised, before work) to put a load of washing on? Wait no more, dear reader. Pop a load of whites on between those pesky emails. No one will notice, and in any case, clothes-line time will afford you the mental space to pause and reflect on whether or not to hit the send button (note to self, never ever send an email in anger or when under the influence, or both).

I’ve often pined to live more like the Greek I was destined to become. Context? My parents decided returning to the mother country in the 1970s was not such a great proposition (lingering regional instability, comparatively rubbish education and health care systems, etc.). Having a siesta in the middle of the day is quintessentially Mediterranean and absolutely foreign to the the British, North Americans and Australians who are enamoured with their Protestant work ethic. We are so rusted onto the idea of working 9 to 5 (and much later than that) that we don’t appreciate just how ridiculously bad for us it is working marathon hours without a proper rest break. How many of us lunch in front of the computer? Hardly a break and certainly not restful. So, lately I have been sneaking in half an hour here and there to recharge the proverbial batteries. I reckon I’m sharper and more nimble as a result, and more pleasant (unless I disagree with you).

Let’s be frank about this, regularly eating out is an utter rip-off and bringing lunch from home can be an organisational pain in the bum. Now that the fridge and stove are literally at arm’s reach there’s no need to do either. That said, even though I own a Nespresso machine (which let’s face it, is more about convenience than it is about the coffee) I still enjoy buying coffee at the local cafe for my post-prandial digestive.

Dressing like a dag or actually not dressing at all is perfectly kosher when there’s no one around to see what you like when you’re not on show. Also, if you’re tight and don’t like spending your hard earned bikkies on hot water and detergent, knock yourself out and wear the same clothes and undies for a week. Your stink wont offend anyone’s sensibilities except your own. Honestly, who truly minds the smell of their own odiferous bodily emissions?

Cafes and restaurants that have survived the pandemic have done so because they have become more entrepreneurial, creative and service oriented. Once a complacent and obnoxious establishment that rested on its laurels of fresh gourmet food and rustic charm, the onset of trading restrictions has seen my local café extend itself, selling fresh produce, flour, eggs, milk and even flirting with the idea of home delivery. Why, I ask, has it taken a pandemic of all things for cafes like this, to offer excellent customer service to their local communities? It is my hope that this new and improved service ethic is sustained well beyond the recovery phase.

One of the most awesome things that has happened as a consequence of physical distancing is the overnight disappearance of over-crowding on public transport and the concomitant rise in active transport. People have rediscovered cycling, walking and running. Bicycle sales have gone through the roof as has the sale of active wear and fitness equipment. Professional researchers will eventually deign to enlighten us about whether this is due to distancing rules, a desire to build one’s immunity against the invidious threat of disease, an increase in one’s personal autonomy and other such factors. In any case, it’s great news for proponents of active transport.

The downside of this is that the systemic underinvestment in appropriate infrastructure has directly led to an increase in accidents and fatalities for walkers and cyclists alike. There’s been lots of chatter recently about widening footpaths, building and connecting cycleways and removing car parking spaces. Cynics say that when all this blows over things will return to normal and everyone will pile back into their cars and clog up the public transport network again. The Dutch had an epiphany in the late 1960s when their children were being mowed down by cars speeding through their communities. Let’s see if this pandemic will be the change agent we need to become fully conscious of just how miserable the lifestyle promoted by car dependancy is, and spur us on to comprehensively reject the concrete jungle our governments are currently fashioning for us (such as the turgidly-named WestConnex).

Has anyone noticed the stars at night? They are twinkling once again. The skies are also quieter. We have been gifted the rare insight into what the world sounded like before the advent of the jet engine age, when God’s winged creatures ruled the air and spoilt us with their charming bird-song. Many of us will be disappointed when the airline industry starts up again, contaminating our environment and wildlife with deafening noise and aviation-fuel pollution. Perhaps this is a good time to reflect on whether or not our society can really afford to have affordable flights?

Whether you are currently employed or on some type of income support, the one thing we all have in common is that we are homebound and physically separated. But now more than ever we are electronically connected. Any sociologist, worthy of the name, will tell you that the term ‘social distancing’ is an utterly nonsensical concept that doesn’t bear repeating. There is nothing socially distanced about using Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, Microsoft Teams, etc., which makes possible very important social interactions and emotional connections, more so than telephony and email are capable of facilitating.

Of all the casual observations I have made above, the one I’m about to conclude with is, I believe, by far the most socially significant change, whose reverberations will be felt well beyond this pandemic. We have up until now been carrying on in our daily lives as if it is still the 20th Century. The pandemic has propelled our consciousness into the 21st century challenging us to engage with and embrace the full potential of the communication tools we have at our disposal. Using online communication tools such as the above mentioned Zoom and Microsoft Teams, for example, as well as all the other online apparatus we normally rely on (email, intranet, internet, mobile telephony, etc.) has not only ensured that business operations can continue with minimum disruption, but more importantly has proven that we need not be as over-reliant on physical co-location to be productive, disciplined and collegial.

This is not to say that physical proximity in a business environment is not desirable, but rather that it is not as essential. Although there are bound to be calls for a return to the unhealthy confines of an open-plan office 5 days per week, this would be a step in the wrong direction into an ancient time when being physically co-located was the only way we had to communicate and work together in real time.

We will always yearn for physical connections. Nothing is more powerful that the joining of two bodies into one – through the touching of hands, the meeting of eyes, the kiss. We need these intimates types of social interaction. They nourish our souls, sooth our hearts, and calm our minds. Soon, hopefully, we will be able to physically reconnect in this manner. But when it comes to work, we need not always be physically proximate, unless the work cannot be done in any other fashion.

Working from home over the last couple of months has not only demonstrated that we can be just as effective in our jobs as we were before the pandemic, but that we can also lead healthier lifestyles by striking a better balance between home and work life. I hope dear reader that this piece inspires you to reflect on how the pandemic has changed and perhaps improved your life in the last few months. There are many more examples, not cited here, both attractive and not so attractive (domestic violence, poverty, social dislocation, shuttered businesses), that have been made possible as a consequence of this pandemic: deeper and richer bonding experiences between parents and home-bound children, more face-time between immediate family members, expedited home improvement plans, adopting new pets, improving one’s diet, and so on. Why not make your own list of pros and cons and discuss it with family, friends and colleagues?

For now though, put the device you’re reading this rant on, aside, take a nice long walk in the sunshine and breathe in the fresher air.

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