Do we really want to return to our old ways of working?
Opinion: the way we work has implications for our psychological well-being and social relationships within and beyond the workplace
After 18 months of living with Covid-19, this autumn has been heralded as the time for a return to normality. Across Ireland and the UK, footfall in towns and cities is expected to increase as workers return to offices. Governments have emphasised the need to resume ‘normal life’, with the reopening of schools, colleges and workplaces viewed as an important step towards that.
At a political level, policies such as the Work Safely Protocol developed by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment provide guidelines in managing transitions from remote to hybrid or fully on site working. While the overt and immediate focus for many of us may be on the operational and individualised aspects of this transition (adjustments to office space and facilities, travel and commuting arrangements etc), it’s important to reflect on what this transition might bring more broadly. Do we want to return to our old ways of working, or are there things we can or should change?
From RTÉ Radio 1’s Drivetime, Neill McDonnell from ISME, discusses how some employers believe the latest Work Safely Protocol does not address difficulties regarding unvaccinated staff
For many workers, the transition back to the workplace will present challenges, whatever their preferred working arrangements. The pandemic accelerated several workplace trends that were already present, including digital transformation, automation as well as remote working.
Constant connectivity to work through emails, telephone calls or other alerts was a problem cited by many workers as a challenge to work life balance long before the pandemic. For some, working from home only served to exacerbate that feeling. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that managing work schedules and home life in a hybrid working scenario could be even more problematic.
Earlier this year, a code of practice on the Right to Disconnect was introduced in Ireland. While this places the onus of managing working time on the employer, it equally emphasises individual responsibility on the part of employees to ensure that working hours are adhered to and to switch off from work outside of working hours. This means that employees themselves need to act collectively to prevent a return to “always on” work cultures, which will become complicated further by a mix of office and home based working arrangements. It would be relatively easy to slip back into the old habits such as answering emails during a commute, having lunch at the desk or staying late in the evenings that first facilitated the development of long hours work cultures.
From RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland, report on the publication of a Code of Practice relating to the right to disconnect
The pandemic-enforced break from workplaces elevated the importance of the physical dimension of work, but the return provides an opportunity to place a renewed emphasis on the social dimension of work. The way we work has implications for our psychological well-being, and our social relationships, within and beyond the workplace. ‘Virtual huddles’ and ‘virtual coffee mornings’ became an accepted, and largely welcome feature of working life during the pandemic, as employers sought to create and sustain social connections between their employees.
However, those of a cynical persuasion may point to such activities as a subtle form of monitoring workers. As a means of disproving that, continuing to facilitate dedicated time and space for workers to engage in social activities together would be an important signal by employers that they truly value social cohesion and working relationships. Paradoxically, a sense of solidarity among workers has been found to increase through union membership, yet stories have emerged throughout the pandemic of employer actions to quell such developments.
From RTÉ Radio 1’s Reignite, Daniel Rogers from Trinity’s Ideas Workspaces with advice for those returning to work
While a cohesive workplace is important, the pandemic has also demonstrated the importance of social cohesion and solidarity more generally. Plans around returning to work dominate the news right now, but it’s important to remember that this opportunity hasn’t yet come for some. Workers in sectors such as entertainment continue to have their livelihoods decimated by the pandemic. The continuation of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment for those workers is vital.
Working from home was never an option for frontline workers. Despite the commitment they’ve shown, little by way of tangible rewards seems likely as future fiscal adjustments are made. Trade unions have been hugely important throughout the pandemic in lobbying for income supports and safe working conditions for those workers most severely affected by the pandemic.
But for trade unions to have an effective voice in society, a strong membership base is vital. Those returning to work this autumn are in some ways privileged to be able to do so. One way to demonstrate solidarity with other workers is by joining a trade union to ensure that all workers are treated fairly when this pandemic ends.
Habits can be both easy or difficult to create. Ultimately, they involve the decisions we make and the actions we take in all aspects of our lives. If you’re returning to the office this autumn and are seeking a difference in your work life, consider these three habits: switch off, make time for your colleagues and join a union.