There is enormous pressure to “re-open” the economy and for people to return to offices. While the reasons are apparent, from anxious landlords to empty coffee shops, I’m curious about some of the thinking behind this rush back to an old normal that proved to be so fragile.
During these last fifteen months, we have had a great experiment on how fit for purpose the old normal was.
We learned that working from home was not only feasible but at least as productive as the office and preferred by many.
We discovered who we rely on to live our privileged lives, from nurses and teachers to the people who empty our bins and staff our shops, that we take them for granted, and pay them a pittance relative to what they provide for us.
We also got to know what the air feels like when we dramatically reduce our travel and what happens to theoretically low-cost extended supply chains when they are put under logistical and political pressure as we scrambled for PPE and vaccines.
In many respects, Covid-19 has been a rehearsal for the disruption we can expect (but not forecast) as climate change, geopolitical pressures, and other deeply systemic challenges make vast demands of us. We can expect to be surprised, required to improvise, stop our destructive practices and adopt new, regenerative ones. The basic engine of our economy, the headlong pursuit of more, seems destined to splutter.
Then there are the changes that have little to do with the pandemic. Demographic changes where fewer young people are expected to cater for and support more older people who, they feel, have helped bring about the conditions we face. The end of long careers with a single employer and the pensions that have gone with them, and technology that changes so quickly that what university students are learning in their final year makes what they learned in their first year obsolete.
With all these pressures bearing down on us, the debate about returning to the office feels pretty shallow, and that we need to be talking seriously about the nature of work. We need to address a likely need for longer working lives that enrich us in many more ways than financially, an ability to work productively from different locations in response to disruptions and reduce our carbon hungry travel appetites. In addition, we will have to adapt as technology eats many of the jobs we used to call “professional” – from management to finance- and come to terms with very different ideas of farming and our different diets.
In short, we need very different conversations based not on consuming and “winning” but on collaboration and sharing.
They will be as uncomfortable as they are urgent.
One of the first rules of resilience is to understand that nobody is coming to rescue us – not governments, not employers, and not some latterday International Rescue. So if we are to bring about the change we need, it starts locally – conversations with people around us about what we want and what we are prepared to give up to get it. To talk about what we wish work – where we will spend increasing proportions of our lives – to be and how it will satisfy our souls and our survival.
These conversations are already taking place. Small groups of people having unhurried conversations about what they are seeing and sensing around them. People are not looking for short-term expedient solutions but instead identifying what is unfolding around us and what opportunities they represent not just for us but also our grandchildrenand great grandchildren.
In the end, though, it’s down to us. We need to join in. Unfortunately, those we currently work for are not going to do it for us. They would rather we just went back to the office.
All we need to do is join a conversation.