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Working life has entered a new era

by Ace Damon
Working life has entered a new era

May 30, 2020

On March 16, Bartleby left The Economist's offices to return home. This was the last day that the entire editorial team met in our London stronghold. And, at the time of writing, there is no date for returning to the office.

It is remarkable how quickly we adapt. The newspaper was written, edited and produced from sofas and kitchen tables. January and February seem like an old era – BC (before the coronavirus) until the new AD (after domestication). The change can rival major changes in the workplace in the 19th and 20th centuries. Twitter has said that all of its employees will be able to work permanently from home and Facebook expects half of its staff to do so within a decade.

It was a much more sudden transition than what happened with the factories. Steam power meant they were designed around a large power system, complete with belts and pulleys that meandered through the building. A failure at some point in the system stopped everything. Electrification allowed individual machines to have their own energy source. But it took half a century since electricity was introduced in the 1880s before factories were reconfigured to take advantage of the new energy source.

The quick and current switch to AD was activated by preconditions. First, broadband services today are fast enough to allow document downloads and video conferencing. Second, advanced economies revolve around services, not manufacturing. In the 1970s, when Britain adopted a three-day week (to combat a miners' strike), there were power cuts and TV stations had to shut down earlier. In other words, life at home has also been severely affected. The pandemic did not turn off the lights.

Not only that, he made remote work seem normal and acceptable. In the past, employees who stayed at home had to overcome the suspicion that they were moving away. Now, those who insist on being in the office seem important.

Things are missing, of course. Video calls don't have the spontaneity of a normal meeting; no immediate observation to lighten the mood. Distance makes it difficult to generate camaraderie. Creativity is probably more difficult to promote. Octavius ​​Black of Mind Gym, a training company, says new ideas come from weak links in networks – that is, people you occasionally meet. Such "casual collisions" have become more rare.

However, although offices do not disappear, it is difficult to imagine that professional life will return to BC forms. For more than a century, workers have jammed into crowded trains and buses, or faced traffic jams, to enter the office and return five days a week. In the past two months, they have not had to travel and will have enjoyed the hiatus.

Employers, in turn, maintain expensive excavations in city centers because they needed to gather employees in one place. The rent is only part of the cost; there is cleaning, lighting, printers, catering and security at the top. When you work from home, you pay for your own services and food.

Thus, many companies and employees may have had their "Wizard of Oz" moment: the corporate HQ is an old man behind the curtain. Faith in the centralized office can never be restored.

Another aspect of the AD era may be the disappearance of the five-day workweek. Even before the pandemic, many workers got used to receiving phone calls or answering emails over the weekend. In the AD era, the barrier between home and professional life, a useful way to relieve stress, will be even more difficult to sustain.

It can be completely lost. Without commuting from Monday to Friday, the weekend seems like a more nebulous concept, as does the 9 to 5 business day. In the future, employees will be able to work and take breaks whenever they want, with the company's video call as the only accessory. The downside, however, is that the pace of life has been disrupted and new routines are needed: while Madness, a British pop group, sang about school in “Baggy Trousers”, people are reduced to “trying different ways of doing difference. the days".

Looking further, the AD era can bring about other changes. Some may decide to live in small towns where housing costs are lower, as they do not have to move. Men will have less excuse to skip cleaning or day care if they are not disappearing in the office. In a way, this is a return to normal: until the 19th century, most people worked in or near their homes. But social historians can still see 2020 as the beginning of a new era.

Editor's note: Part of the 19-year-old secret cover is free for readers of The Economist Today, our daily newspaper Newsletter. For more stories and our pandemic tracker, see our coronavirus hub

This article was published in the Business section of the print edition, under the title "From BC to AD"

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