An 'energy pod' at the company Thrive Global, in New York (Photo: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

May 13, 2020   7 mins

When the British government imposed a three-day working week during the oil crisis in 1973, many economists expected a productivity drop of at least 40%. It did not happen. People adjusted, worked harder and became more efficient. In the end, even though people were in work less, they were working more.

Fast-forward fifty years and the situation today has triggered an equally huge adjustment in our work patterns. All workers have had specific challenges, whether it’s the key worker whose status has risen and whose workload has increased (but whose pay and conditions have not) or the managerial class now working from home, tag-teaming childcare commitments with partners, and struggling with the virtual office.

One obvious characteristic of this pandemic experience is that we have a renewed sense of what is valuable work in society: saluting farmers, supermarket workers, bin men and delivery drivers. Health and care workers have been elevated beyond a workforce to the status of a sacrificial army for their undeniable duty and bravery. We do not wear poppies to show our respect but clap in the street to show our thanks. There is a new appreciation for schools, too, not just for their role in educating kids but as wrap-around childcare enabling parents to work. And how many other informal paid workers from cleaners to childminders do we now realise are fundamental to making our households — and our economy — tick?

This is an important corrective to the past two decades which was characterized with a steady decline in respect, status and stability for jobs categorised as “low-skilled”.  Associated with debates around immigration, education and inequality, the issue has dogged politics in most countries for years and has been both ignition and accelerant to the populist flame.

But as well as reminding us of these under appreciated but vital roles, the pandemic has also made us think about the purpose of work at the other end of the social scale. Before Corona, a Gallup poll found that 87% of workers in the UK felt disengaged in their job, and it is doubtful whether this figure would improve today just because so many of us are working from home.

How many workers are discovering how little they actually do in the office (and that it can be done at home in half the time)? Or perhaps workers are finding the exact opposite; things that could take 10 minutes in the office now take an hour over Zoom. Kids are exposed to what mummy and daddy call ‘work’ — lots of time looking at a screen, something we berate them for doing too much of and an activity that is hardly inspiring for them to see. How many workers are waking up to the fact that the rhythms and responsibilities that defined them aren’t as necessary or as important as they thought?

Given the economic slump that will follow this pandemic, it is unlikely that we will see a mass of dissatisfied workers walk out of their jobs; most will seek stability rather than change. But, even if this lockdown experience is not leading us to question our career, it is undoubtedly making us question our record on work/life balance.

There are three reasons to work: financial survival, professional and financial status, and personal meaning and identity. Since the 1990s, especially among the graduate class, it was the latter that was encouraged. A career was increasingly where individuals found their purpose. Finding the ‘right’ fit became a full time pursuit, consuming all spare hours, weekends and most of our twenties. If we took a wrong turn, we labelled it a quarter-life crisis and simply trained for something else.

Nowhere was this more encouraged than in the millennial generation, whose educational and parenting culture was entirely CV-driven. And for the first time in history, it was a gender-neutral pursuit, with millennial women being instructed that finding the right career was far more important than finding the right partner. The ultimate status update for millennials was not to be in love but to be in love with your job.

By the mid-noughties, just as manual labour declined and found itself increasingly dismissed by an educational establishment, we began to romanticise self-actualisation through work. Out went the slacker trends of the 1990s: the dead-end jobs, artistic fantasies, faint-hearted careers, twenty-somethings slumped on the sofa like Friends. Rents became too high, tuition fees had to be paid back and a global recession was looming. Work became the ultimate realising of the self. It was not the music we liked or the hobbies we pursued but our career that gave us our uniform, self-meaning and network.

Tech idealists were the chief evangelists of this rewriting of the protestant work ethic, with Steve Jobs the guiding prophet, immortalised by an unwillingness to compromise, global success and premature death: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life
 have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

Where we worked and where we wanted to work began to reflect this new culture. Again, the pioneers were the dot.coms of the early noughties and their influence signified what may be called the “Californication of the office”; evident today in even the dullest of corporate places. It became a space designed not for monotonous uninspiring work but for constant play with break-out zones, super-slides, free-breakfast bars, gyms and sleep pods. Like a casino is designed to keep out daylight, these offices are engineered to make you feel like you were not at work at all (and to keep you there for as long as possible).

Work benefits began to reflect these new priorities. Out went gold-plated pensions (a route map to eventual departure) and in came very different perks from pet insurance to unpaid sabbaticals, even an egg-freezing service and a breast milk courier system.

WeWork was the apotheosis of this trend. In the words of its poster-boy founder, Adam Neumann, WeWork was where people “made a life not just a living” and whose spaces were based “on mission and fulfilment — not only salary”. WeWork’s mission was always more impressive than its finances. Co-working spaces reflected the lionising of the lone, disruptive entrepreneur — even though the majority of WeWork’s clients were large corporations seeking to tap into the zeitgeist. The original concept of WeWork as a commune was always fantastical: there was no ‘we’ in WeWork; it reflected the decades-long breakdown of the employer-employee relationship.

It was not surprising that in this exhaustive search for meaning and purpose, we were becoming exhausted. Work seeped into our weekends, our social events and ultimately into our home — especially as the global recession hit and wages fell. We monetised our hobbies through side-hustles and further allowed the intrusion of work into our leisure time. The millennial generation in particular, far from their lazy, entitled stereotype, were becoming ‘work martyrs’, more likely than any generation to answer emails at the weekends.

But then came the Great Pause: Covid-19. No company, individual or government could have engineered this experiment if they tried. It is a real test of an employer’s obligations to their workforce. It is a real test of how accommodating employers are to workers’ work/life balance and familial responsibilities. It is a real test for workers as to whether they actually enjoy their job and how fulfilling they find it. I am currently doing a series of lockdown interviews with different professions, from CEOs to yoga teachers, and it is striking how little people are talking about work and how much they are talking about renewed fulfilment in the family, hobbies and home. Is this the time when we stop pretending we love our jobs?

They say it takes 66 days to build a new habit, and given some of the predictions of how long it will take to get back to normality, some are starting to think that it will never happen — certainly in the workplace. A recent Ipsos MORI poll found that 75% of Britons expect their work-life to change because of Covid-19. The question is how? Certainly, those workers — mostly parents — who have had to fight with their companies for flexible working will never have to make the case again. Even two-week paternity leave now seems woefully inadequate.

Even after social distancing ends, companies may find that they will have to justify why workers need to be in the office at all. With more remote working and staggered shifts, loyalty and camaraderie among workers will become a problem especially for new entrants. Some are already experimenting with all sorts of virtual bonding from cocktail lessons to quiz nights — but is this really comparable to a quick drink before the commuter train?

Even when lockdown is lifted and with social distancing measures still in operation, the office will be a very different place. Out go sleep pods (unhygienic) and break out zones (too social); maybe cubicles will once again become the norm?

More pointedly, many companies and organisations, especially in a recession, will use this as an excuse to “shave off some of the fat” with many roles, departments and people now considered surplus to requirements. Businesses are already sniffing out the huge savings to be made on reducing leased office space. It may be that office HQ becomes like a church: a place for regular worship, a sermon, communion and the odd study class, but with staggered service times and empty most of the time: the expectation will be that the majority of individuals’ work is performed outside the building.

But if true, consider the ramifications for those dependent on a thriving office community in our cities: from sandwich shops to cleaners to transport infrastructure. Business districts on a Sunday are ghost towns — do we really want that to become the norm? And what of the ramifications for company culture? Will the diversity deficit, mansplaining, even sexual harassment no longer be a feature of work-life or will these problems only intensify or be ignored in a working world dominated by Zoom? The suggested model published by the Adam Smith Institute last week of four days in work, ten days at home model may, depending on how long it lasts, totally destroy the concept of a ‘weekend’ and put us all on a rota rhythm that may feel more disruptive than lockdown itself.

All these changes will all be for the corporate class, of course, or at least the office class. And big business will adapt much slower to nimbler smaller outfits. The self-employed already have much of this flexibility built-in, but they may find that with fewer people in the office, their services are needed less and are the easiest to discard. There is already a divide between workers; those that can work from home and those that can’t — and that divide will only intensify post-Covid.

During this pandemic, all those things which are not usually recognised in the economy, such as care and cleaning (typically female jobs) are now what the economy hinges upon. The professional classes currently leaning out of their windows to clap on a Thursday night will soon find themselves confronted by a new world of work, but will this lead to a new era of work/life balance? Probably not. All the research suggests that a clear divide between personal and professional boundaries in life results in greater happiness.

So before we all rip off our lanyards in liberation, it is important to consider how the blurring of boundaries that comes with more remote flexible working may backfire; meaning in fact that we are all working harder, longer and more often. So it is surely time to stop pretending that it is the key thing that defines us.


Eliza Filby is a speaker, writer & consultant specialising in the history of generations and the evolution of contemporary values.