The death of the city has been greatly exaggerated.
For all the hand-wringing over whether urban centres will become metal carapaces memorialising the slog of the white-collar 9-5, about two-thirds of Irish bosses have had plans in place for a staggered return to office since last summer, despite government advice that everyone who is able to work from home should continue to do so throughout the pandemic. Recent setbacks may force a rethinking of the timeline, but vaccinations are here and will become increasingly accessible over the next few months. You can almost see some managers licking their lips at the thought of having the cubicle warren filled with little worker rabbits all over again.
With the US vaccine rollout opening to all adults by next week, KOIN, the CBS-affiliate in Portland, Oregon, reported this week that 75% of American executives expect a return to the office by July, with 55% of employees preferring to remain at home at least three days a week. It’s almost like the old guard need to justify their authority in the face of proof that, in many work circumstances, they aren’t needed.
Titans of corporate finance have balked at the idea of continued working from home, while tech companies, perhaps unsurprisingly, have largely embraced it. But despite the frustrations of Zoom and fewer opportunities to work collaboratively, employees love it. No time- and money-sucking commutes, no sad desk lunches (or their perhaps more disappointing obverse, the overpriced deli sandwich)—most significantly, the opportunity to create the work environment that works best for you. Those who have needs that never quite fit into the rigid parameters of the standard workday find it particularly liberating, like people with disabilities, the chronically ill, and home caregivers and parents to young children.
In my experience, before COVID, the only people in offices afforded the flexibility to organise their work in ways that fit their personal quirks and needs were the bosses. Underlings had to make sure we were at our stations the full workday, and probably a while before and after to show a modicum of ambition. I’m no psychologist, but the dynamic (if “dynamic” can be used to describe something so ossified) struck me as one of part powerplay, part institutional incentive to self-perpetuate the system: When you are the boss, you too can do what you want. Until then, you’re trading your labour for my wages, so I set the terms of that labour.
The problem is that most of us will never be the boss.
Richard Wolff, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, described capitalism as originally a critique of feudalism on a recent episode of NPR’s Planet Money. In Animal Farm-style, though, once the pigs had power, the pigs began to note that maybe two legs really were better, and capitalism began to look a lot like feudalism:
[Capitalism] does bear an alarming similarity to feudalism because, once again, it divides everybody into one or the other of two categories. A tiny minority, like lords were, is called employers. And the vast majority of us are employees.Professor Richard Wolff, UMass Amherst
The transformative power of working from home derives from the degree of dignity and personal agency it has restored to workers. It may not be full union benefits, but we feel more like human beings when we can realise our hours as best befits us every day, not just while on holiday, all while completing our projects at no loss to the boss. I have no doubt that many executives—particularly those who own their business—feel genuine pride when they step into a room full of their employees. But pride can verge upon ego. We’ve laid bare the exploitative lie of “do what you love,” and any bosses who feel hurt by this would be wise to rid themselves of that vainglorious phantasm that most of their employees are there for any other reason than they need money, and this job is a relatively pleasant means of getting it. Yet employees are expected to stand by, Sancho Panza-like, as executives charge at windmills.
Flexible working is the only legitimate workplace wellness plan. Employers who don’t embrace it will struggle to attract talent unless they offer wages well above the expected. Workers have tasted self-determination and won’t go back to the panopticon of the open-plan office. The existential dread of the drab office clock no longer taunts us with the sense that this ergonomic desk chair is the best we can expect out of life. When people are given a choice about how to work, it only makes sense that they will choose ways that will enable them to be their most productive.