Work and life

AS IF IN REPLY to this blog's April Fools Day contribution to working-from-home advice and St Valentine's Day questions about clerical companionship, Michael Koziol of the Sydney Morning Herald has written in favour of offices and workplaces:

I think we tend to undervalue the social experience of seeing our colleagues: the lift encounters, the desk-side chats, the coffee runs. I suppose if we happily discard those things now it will only go to show how little they really meant all along. But we'll miss them, I suspect. They're much better than staring at a screen.

He is right; workplaces are places where life happens and we interact with people we care about and share a society with. Routine really is an aid to identity, and a strong psychological buttress. He is also wrong; 'nice' workplaces in their very cosiness are artificial societies, created for the purposes of production. When profit slackens, the boss chooses amongst your colleagues, and they don't come back on Monday.

But this is an old, old argument. We're all of us standing on the shoulders of giants, the people who've researched and thought harder about the past of work, coercion, sociality, production, division of 'work' and 'life', and as I've linked to before, time-discipline and morality (PDF). Take it away E.P. Thompson:

The evidence is plentiful, and, by the method of contrast, it reminds us how far we have become habituated to different disciplines. Mature industrial societies of all varieties are marked by time-thrift and by a clear demarcation between "work" and "life". But, having taken the problem so far, we may be permitted to moralize a little, in the eighteenth-century manner, ourselves. The point at issue is not that of the "standard-of-living". If the theorists of growth wish us to say so, then we may agree that the older popular culture was in many ways otiose, intellectually vacant, devoid of quickening, and plain bloody poor. Without time- discipline we could not have the insistent energies of industrial man; and whether this discipline comes in the forms of Methodism, or of Stalinism, or of nationalism, it will come to the developing world. What needs to be said is not that one way of life is better than the other, but that this is a place of the most far-reaching conflict...

The italics are mine. What conditions of work are better obviously depend on the worker and the work. Some of us like going to the office and a clear distinction between the workplace and the home. Others resent the tyranny of the timesheet and the surveillance demands of our managers. Neither is wrong, the question is who gets to say. My own preference is for the abolition of timesheets, but then that would suit me; others rightly cherish their timesheets as proof against the 'clock off then unload the truck' habits of wage-thieving bosses.

As the first wave of the pandemic has rolled over and we await the second, it's obvious that the 'new normal' looks just like the older normal, a bit cleaner, a bit less fair. The optimism of April that 'flexibility' would become entrenched and workplaces bent to suit the worker is gone; we are back to the old normal world where 'flexibility' is a manager's word, ready in the HR phrasebook next to 'innovation', 'productivity', and the like, all synonyms for shifting numbers from 'wages costs' to 'profits'. Koziol concludes:

Let's resist the instinct of the technological evangelists to lock us up inside forever with nothing but the internet to bring us together. Returning to the office must be done safely but it should, at some stage, be done.

And here I agree. The conflict isn't over yet.

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