Last week, I spoke at Amity University’s conference on Student Engagement, Wellbeing, Holistic Development & the ‘New Normal’. I talked about how we can move from just about coping with remote working now to opening career opportunities working from anywhere and I will publish it in two parts. This installment outlines my thinking on the first part of my talk: what we need to do to make remote work sustainable, not just a stop-gap during the crisis.
Many jobs cannot be done remotely, and we need to recognise that there is an imbalance towards middle class people with university degrees who hold those who can. There are many aspects of social justice I will touch upon, as they are crucial for making remote work … work on a societal scale. I think the underlying inequalities affect us all and that the remedies may help us all, too. If you want to read up on the intersection of career guidance and social justice, I highly recommend Tristram Hooley’s work on the topic.
Holding it together
Last March, after a long period of dithering, the UK government decided to bring the country into its first lock-down. So we all immediately had to work from home. Many of us hated it and feverishly waited for the moment to return to ‘normality’. We all tried to manage on a daily basis, often juggling homeschooling and care responsibilities. We really just tried to get by.
Previously many employers claimed that it was impossible to offer remote work to people with child care responsibilities or disabilities. This turned out to be mostly … inaccurate [ed.: what I really meant was to say it was bullshit]. I remember when disability campaigners pointed this out. Suddenly, employers made reasonable adjustments – now that they had to be made for everyoneelse, too.
The ‘old normal’ was not normal
Soon, more underlying social grievances became apparent. While managing our own anxieties, we found that our living circumstances were less from ideal. For the first time since the Industrial Revolution we all lived and worked at home again. It turned out that our housing stock was not geared towards this new normal. Neither was our service based economy, which was highly dependent on commuting and consumption.
We faced the pressure to stay both physically as well as mentally healthy. And as the economic damage of the pandemic piled up, new anxieties emerged. The threat of economic collapse and mass redundancies became dominant. Even the most neo-liberal governments enacted bailouts and rescue packages. Naturally, at some point they tried to push us back into the office. We can safely say now that that has not worked, as the virus still ravages through especially the Western world.
Can remote work become the norm?
But also, people didn’t want to go back to the office, just like that anymore – here in Ireland that is 90% of remote workers [ed.: this is a bit simplified, but I pulled the stat from the excellent National Remote Work Strategy, p2]. The longer the exception to the rule extended the more it became the new normal. And we had to dig deep to keep holding it together, as we developed new coping mechanisms. At some point flexible and remote working advocates started to ask the questions: ‘what would we need to make this new normal bearable?’ and ‘could we even thrive?’
My answer to this is – yes, we can thrive. I think we can reach an equilibrium, as we slowly turn a corner, and rethink the way we commute, consume, and commune.
What needs to change?
The way I see it, this will require wholesale economic and social change. When listing up the different factors that play a role here I notice that most of them are outside of the hands of individuals, though. Yes, we can build resilience, develop personal coping mechanisms, practice mindfulness, or whatever else gets us through the day. I do, too. But that is not enough. We need fundamental change. We need:
Secure housing, so no one gets evicted while we are all supposed to shelter.
Consistent and effective public health policy, offering Covid prevention and treatment.
Financial aid. State aid can tide over parts of the economy central for the time after Covid-19, but which may not survive until then.
Digital infrastructure and widespread digital literacy are central from hereon.
And finally, fairer employer-employee relations. Employees have been flexible and made sacrifices to keep their employers afloat. It’s time to recognise that and develop new partnerships.
And that’s just the baseline. [end of part 1]
Hailing frequencies open
Want to read more? I will publish part two shortly, where I will talk about what education could do to help enable graduates pursue remote careers.