“Don’t bother coming back to the office.” It’s the kind of message everyone dreads receiving, but for Twitter’s employees it was benign. The tech company announced this week that home-working arrangements made for the pandemic would stay for good: nobody need ever commute in again, unless they particularly wanted to. In Britain, the telecoms giant BT also declared that staff could choose whether to come back to call centres or just carry on from home.
The idea that office life is over is almost certainly overdone. Not everyone loves typing away on the sofa day after day, panicking about being out of the corporate loop. But for those lucky enough to have the choice to work from home, the collective near-death experience we’ve endured as a nation may be prompting a re-evaluation of what matters.
Commuter dads who once rarely saw their children awake have got used to the casual intimacy of being around them all day long. In the privacy of their personal Facebook feeds, more than one hard-hitting Westminster type has melted into a puddle of baby pictures. For the less sentimental, savings from seven weeks of raiding the fridge for lunch and not filling the car are adding up; the environmental benefits of keeping traffic off the roads are a happy bonus. But if the shift to home-working has been relatively painless, that’s merely the beginning.
Modern working hours are in part a legacy of the Great Depression of the 1930s, when collapsing demand for labour encouraged companies to share around what work there was: what had been a six-day week for many shrank to five. Now it may be shrinking again.
The world’s largest law firm, Dentons, is among companies asking staff to work a four-day week for 80% of salary due to falling demand. The Adam Smith Institute, one of the more bracingly rightwing thinktanks, is pushing its “four days on, ten days off” model designed by an epidemiologist for a safer return to work: companies would split staff into groups, each doing four days in the office or factory followed by 10 days off, with the groups rotated in order to limit numbers and help social distancing. (If you do get infected, the idea is that symptoms would be more likely to emerge during the days off, allowing people to self-isolate).
It sounds hell to match with childcare, but at least it’s evidence of right as well as left accepting that we cannot simply return to business as usual. The next step, however is working out how to make any of this fair on people who can’t afford a pay cut. Rishi Sunak made a big leap of imagination, for a Conservative chancellor, to embrace furloughing – but to get us out of it will require another one.
This week it emerged that from August, employers must start picking up some of the bill for furloughing their own people, currently met by the Treasury. The risk is that redundancies will follow, but the best hope of avoiding them is for the Treasury to allow part-time furloughing. People could be paid conventionally to work, say, three or four days a week, with the furlough scheme topping up their salaries.
An enlightened government could effectively turn furloughing into a mechanism for spreading work around in lean times, while buying time to re-imagine working hours for the longer term.
Around the world, people are already grappling with the question of how to shorten the working week. The organisation 4 Day Week Global has been experimenting for years in New Zealand with reorganising companies so that five days’ work can be done in four, giving employees a longer weekend for the same pay. (The reward for their bosses is better productivity, happier people, and lower staff turnover.) Now it’s looking at adapting that model through the current crisis.
In Scotland, the Post-Covid-19 Futures Commission, created by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, is examining four-day weeks; Labour too could dust off its report on them, commissioned by John McDonnell long before the pandemic. But is the current government up to such bold thinking?
This week’s clumsy stab at thawing a frozen economy hardly inspires confidence. The treatment of teachers has been a model of how not to encourage anxious people back, with unions accused of sabotage for daring to express concerns about the risk of infection spreading and people dying. Social distancing on public transport visibly isn’t working, and mixed messages about what is now allowed have eroded trust.
Why can an estate agent visit your home, but not your grandchildren? True, you’re less likely to hug the former. That doesn’t, however, explain why you can car-share with colleagues if going to work, but not sit next to them in the park. It looks horribly as if rules can be bent for anything that makes a profit.
But there is still just about time to go back to the drawing board. When, and only when, it’s safe to go back to the workplace, the return should be framed much as lockdown was seven weeks ago: as an act of social solidarity that helps others, while also benefiting individuals. It should come with encouragement for anyone who has dreamed of cutting their hours, focusing on working fathers who constantly tell surveys they’d like to work less but feel they can’t actually do it.
But most of all, it should come with a promise of living better, and sharing the pain of slumping economic demand. Theresa May was once mocked for insisting nothing had changed. Her successor must acknowledge that something profoundly has.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist