The Coronavirus outbreak has introduced societies around the world to something that may never have unfolded in quite the same way at any point in human history. For now, all of us are getting used to the concept of ‘ordered chaos’ – whether we like it or not.
This is not the paradox it appears to be at first glance. The ‘order’ is the concrete, here and now reality of being unable to leave our homes except for limited exercise and food. The chaos is the disruption to the daily rhythms of millions of lives, as thoughts of foreign holidays are grounded, parents squeeze home-schooling in between work assignments, leisure opportunities are curtailed and many households scrabble to realign their budgets in fear of a jobless future.
Against this background, the stentorian call of duty that motivates us to get on with our jobs can no longer fool us into thinking that additional displays of industry mean we are indispensable. Companies can and will shed headcount when it comes to the crunch – particularly if doing so allows them a future beyond struggling to pay their creditors.
To future generations this predicament might read like the shooting script for a post-apocalyptic film without the nuclear fallout. But this is no dystopian fantasy. It’s happening now and before the story has played out many more families will experience turbulent times.
The fork in the road
It’s clear that there are complex philosophical, ethical, economic and social choices ahead. And yet this could turn out to be the biggest reset button since the clanking chains of the industrial revolution transformed society in the nineteenth century.
Now, more than ever, it seems legitimate to question the articles of faith that have ruled our lives for so long. Can we improve our interpersonal relationships by using technology attain a better work/life balance? Can we improve health outcomes by uncoupling mental wellbeing from the aggregation of wealth and status? The answer to these questions should be obvious, but how we choose to tackle the issues they raise will largely determine our prospects of long-term survival. Nonetheless, if the fundamental desire to change for the better is there then out of this great tragedy some great good will come.
Making work, work
There are reasons to be optimistic. So much of our lives are dedicated to work that the ‘hamster in a wheel’ syndrome is a common feature of burnout; and yet the events of the last few months have shown us that it is possible to be productive even when we are working as part of ‘distributed teams’. For that reason businesses should embrace greater access to flexible working for employees. The benefits to family life, to the environment and the cost of living make this an essential plank of a better, less stressed, less ‘always on’ society.
In the same way, the cult of the leader and ‘leadership’ may become a considerably less crowded field, as philosophies that buckle in a crisis are quickly shelved for more effective approaches. Clear communication with employees about the company culture and the mechanisms of support available to individuals working in isolation have a better chance of creating motivated teams than panic buying the latest fad or laying people off indiscriminately. In short, this period could see genuine leaders emerge that bring with them empathy and sincerity as well as the requisite business acumen. In this scenario, it’s not unreasonable to believe that the benefits will extend to long-term cultural improvements.
Finally, there’s the likelihood that changes to the working environment will happen across the board. Companies will need more focus on deep-cleaning at the end of each day. They will also need to ensure that employees have adequate space to connect with one another as well the option to distance themselves for ‘quiet time’ should they need to. Ultimately enforcement may become a matter for legislators, but in a world where a novel virus has burned a deadly trail across the entire planet, most forward-thinking companies will want to do their bit to protect their staff.
The use of communications technology enables us to keep in touch when we can’t touch. In doing so it creates a raft of new issues that will take time to work through. However, in amongst this morass of uncertainty one thing has become abundantly clear: people are no less efficient, dedicated or resilient working in isolation as when they are grouped together in offices. This revelation should form the centre-piece of a national and international debate on the way that we work, rest and play in the 21st century. Do we want to carry on accelerating towards the wall or are we going to jam on the brakes and construct a better, less damaging future?
Now would be a good time to decide.
The Workers Union – Britain’s hardest working union