The plague has hit. For some weeks, we knew it might – but, since first appearing in China at the end of last year, this deadly virus has swept across the planet like wildfire. It’s not just lives this Coronavirus claims, though, it’s livelihoods – jobs, businesses, savings; money. Now is not a time for cynicism, and I applaud the UK government for committing to do “whatever it takes” to tackle the many negative effects of this unpleasant new disease. The £330 billion package announced by Rishi Sunak is welcome; it is likely, however, that more money will need to be spent.
This is a tragedy which with many repercussions. There is, at the moment, an overwhelming need for hospital beds and ventilators; ventilators being a key weapon in the armoury of the doctors and medical teams on the frontline of this epidemic. People are afraid not just of the virus itself but its long-term effects on their personal and business finances, their job stability, and the wider economy.
Many measures, such as working from home, may precipitate a longer-term change in how our workforce operates. If employers and employees realise that their workload can be dealt with just as effectively at home – with the flexible hours, cost-cutting and autonomy that provides – why would they wish to go back to the office? Offices cost money. If it’s only truly necessary to be in the office two days-a-week, why go in for five? Will we see a rise in flexible offices, where multiple companies share the same space? Will “virtual meetings” via the internet replace meetings at work, or even conferences and international travel? How will more flexible hours affect family life, and women in the workplace?
Societies run on a routine – “business as usual”. What does that mean? Working 9 to 5, for many. Popping to the pub after work. A long commute, maybe. Less time with family and children. For younger people in the workplace, hitting town at the weekend. This is the cycle of life in most major cities; the heartbeat of our country (and most Western countries) since men in bowler hats, with starched collars, poured off the morning train into London in the 1950s. Social mores have changed, of course; but how we run our working lives – and what we think of as “business” – largely has not.
COVID-19 has disrupted all that. Of course, some work will still need to be done in person. Manual workers, staff in supermarkets, the people who run and look after our public spaces – and entertainment spaces – will still need to ‘go to work’. But the trend is inevitable: ‘white collar workers’ will be, ever more, working from their own homes.
There will be some disadvantages to the new “business as usual”. The truth – as any manager knows – is its easier to keep an eye on staff when they’re sitting next to you. Being together, physically in one space, encourages teamwork and camaraderie (and the occasional embarrassing incident at the Christmas Party). But it’s also a model which can penalise self-starters, discourages independent work, and – frankly – burns up capital. The future structure of companies could well be cheaper, leaner and more efficient, and apps such as Whatsapp will maintain real time contact where and when necessary.
There are other positive outcomes. Less need to commute will mean less pollution. Individuals will be able to work when it suits them best. Prefer working at night? Great! Rather start early? That’s no problem, either. It will be a tougher shift for those of us that view ‘going to the office’ as part of the day-to-day tapestry of life. But young people are used to spending more time alone, communicating digitally. And there is an advantage to our sense of community, too: towns and villages will grow and become more vibrant, as families relocate to them and choose to stay in them, because their work is no longer dependent on them being 40 minutes from a major city.
The direction of travel is only one way. Let’s get ahead of the curve. It’s time for a new business as usual.
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