Work Life Post Covid
There’s seemingly no end of chatter about the mythical future of life after the currently fashionable coronapanic loses its ability to generate revenues for the media and we slowly attempt to feel our way back to something vaguely resembling what we think we remember was called “normal.”
Corporate drones with impressive titles such as Director, Senior Director, Vice-President, and Senior Vice-President are all very eager to get “their” people back in the office so that the requisite amount of ego-flattering and kowtowing can resume after such a lengthy interruption.
Cubicle slaves with unimpressive titles such as Assistant to the Assistant to the Manager of Tertiary Administrative Operations are mostly eager to get away from their family members and start pretending once more that their work colleagues are their “friends.”
Those who used to travel for business are eager to return to the discomfort of cramped SuperEconomyPremiumKneeless seats in order to accumulate a few more airmiles before the consortium to which their carrier of choice belongs decides to depreciate the value of the miles, setting a cheap seat on a flight from LA to NY not at the current 150,000 miles but at 300,000 miles, and then only on the second Sunday of each month unless there’s a number 2 in the date.
In other words, nearly everyone is whining about how hard it is to work from home and how lovely it will be to get back into the office. Which is very odd, because that implies people have (a) little or no ability to manage their time efficiently, and (b) little or no ability to arrange their domestic affairs satisfactorily. Rather than addressing these two issues, the strategy is avoidance. Returning to the office is a great way to avoid confronting the problems inherent in one’s life.
Although optimistic souls point to the many reasons why working from home is infinitely better than commuting into an office, we humans are creatures of habit. No matter how self-defeating something is, if it’s habit we’ll continue to do it unless we’re tied down and bludgeoned with a cold over-cooked English sausage (for the uninitiated, mostly bread and other non-meat ingredients, plus various unhealthy fats and plenty of salt).
It doesn’t matter that commuting produces billions of tons of CO2 each year and exhausts people before they even crawl to their cubes. It doesn’t matter that much time in the office is wasted on makework and creating the illusion of activity so that the Big Boss can imagine we’re being productive. It doesn’t matter that being in an office precludes the flexibility to put a load of laundry into the machine between Zoom meetings or spend time with one’s young children over lunch (surprise! we can block lunchtime just like we block time for meetings!). It doesn’t matter that most office buildings are profoundly unhealthy, with their recycled conditioned air and their artificial lights. It also doesn’t matter that the office has only existed for a couple of centuries, being the pre-tech solution to the need for centralized data processing, and is now entirely pointless.
So we will all march obediently back to the office once our politicians cease to believe that votes can be garnered by means of impressive-sounding but largely pointless restrictive policies. The few companies that allow their cube slaves some degree of flexibility will have outcomes no different from those that insist everyone returns to work in the office five days per week. This is because those working from home will discover that promotions and good opportunities are given to those whom the Big Boss can see tapping away in their cubes, not to those who are out of sight and thus out of mind. Eventually nearly everyone will accept the horrid fact that if one wishes to attempt to ascend the greasy corporate pole, one must do so within the air-conditioned artificially-lit confines of the office.
So ironically we’ll end up with Zoom calls connecting people in one identikit conference room with people in another identikit conference room somewhere else on the planet. We’ll congratulate ourselves on our ability to use liberating technologies to trap ourselves inside old-fashioned modalities. But it’s all in a good cause: those people with impressive titles will feel a little better about their mostly empty lives.
To see how truly absurd this is, let’s consider some of the objections to white-collar workers operating from home. First of all, the isolation. Sure, during our present insane coronapanic we’ve all been sentenced to near-solitary confinement — a punishment known for its harmful psychological effects and therefore highly restricted in prisons to only the worst offenders. But we’re talking about post-coronapanic life when we’ll be once again permitted to meet friends and family without the police breaking down our doors and telling us how very naughty we’re being. By cutting out a couple of hours of pointless commuting each day, there’s more time to spend with friends, not less. Oh, and we’re talking about real friends here, not the US version where the word simply means “someone I met once for two minutes and is now part of my social media network.”
Secondly comes the complaint of sore muscles and stiff necks. Home furniture isn’t designed for hours spent in front of a computer! Well, two things are obvious here. One, companies can certainly afford to buy their workers proper desks and task chairs if they save millions by canceling their leases on all that unnecessary office space. Secondly, people working in cubicles also suffer from sore muscles and stiff necks and carpal tunnel syndrome because they aren’t working ergonomically and they aren’t getting up every 20 minutes. It’s easier to work ergonomically from home because for most people there’s a lot more room at home than in a tiny cubicle.
Thirdly comes the perpetually absurd idea that marvelous creative new ideas spring forth from the serendipitous water cooler conversations employees are supposed to enjoy when crammed into hateful offices. First of all, such conversations are mythical, not real. Secondly, any organization depending on chance encounters deserves to go bankrupt tomorrow. Thirdly, even if any such conversation ever took place, corporate bureaucracy would ensure that nothing ever came of the supposedly great idea thus engendered. And if you really truly want a water cooler, they’re pretty cheap. Buy one on Amazon and stick it in the corner of your living room.
Fourthly comes team cohesion. Oh, we need to be all together in the same place to bond as a team! Except more than 70% of US workers report hating their boss and hating their colleagues. Many fantasize at length about the ways in which they could kill their co-workers. Irritating people are far less annoying when reduced to the dimensions of a Zoom meeting; having them in an adjacent cubicle is far less tolerable.
I could go on (and on…) but the point is made: although there are many reasons to avoid returning to the soul-crippling confines of the office, nearly everyone will end up back in Cubicle 4127-B. Within 12 months of the end of coronapanic, it will be as though 2020 and 2021 never happened. The roads will be once more jammed during commute hours, sales of coffee will return to their previous levels, and families will be once again neglected in favor of slaving for large corporations that will jettison even the hardest-working employees when it becomes necessary to do so in order to protect the executive compensation payout at year’s end.
Perhaps the only real change will be the continued rise in so-called “gig workers” both white collar and manual. Some of these will have the ability to work where they please, because letting contractors work from home means paying for less office space and is a quick way for the CFO to score a few brownie points. Perhaps over the decades to come more people will become contractors and fewer will be hired as cube slaves, and so the office will gradually wither away as the Big Boss finds other ways to achieve ego gratification.
Until then, let’s brace ourselves for a return to our old dysfunctional way of working because even the most well-hyped story of existential threat eventually runs out of road.
Unlike all those who’ll soon be commuting once more.