Reports of the death of the office are greatly exaggerated

by Tom Hewitt

Reading most columns about the Covid pandemic, you’d think everything has irrevocably changed. From working in the office, to the way society reacts to disease, to the very role of the State – things have changed for good is the narrative.

Yet nothing is inevitable. So, before deciding on whether to succumb to this ‘new normal’, it is worth reflecting on whether the old normal was actually so bad.

Take office work, for example. Due to digital technology, it has long been the case that visiting physical offices has been unnecessary to do things like access files or to communicate with other staff. It is undeniable commuting has always been a bit of a slog. It is true scrapping offices would save companies a lot of time and money.

But these irritants cannot compensate for the fact we humans are fundamentally social beings. Meeting in the office gives a humanity to working life. There is a reason why the term ‘work’ has a secondary meaning – to refer to a wider social environment – rather than just the literal work itself. Permanent home working means we would risk losing the human stimulation we need to learn, enjoy and be inspired: there should be more to life than just clinical efficiency.

Similarly, with travel. Platforms such as Zoom clearly save time for all involved. Not flying undoubtably has ecological benefits for the planet. But neither changes can hope to replicate the dynamism of meeting other people in person, or the thrill of experiencing new environments.

Most pertinently, the value of being able to live rich, meaningful lives also relates to public health policy.

In the past year, most of the world has endured a series of heavy-handed restrictions on civil liberties in response to the Covid virus, the main justification given that these restrictions have been necessary on utilitarian grounds to prevent healthcare systems from being literally overwhelmed.

Now, regardless of the merits of this approach for the present crisis, once the pandemic has passed through either vaccination or herd immunity, the premise that healthcare systems risk being overwhelmed in the absence of such restrictions is going to be harder to sustain: it will unequivocally be a choice not a necessity.

What is worrying is that an increasing number of scientists and officials are starting to float the idea that similar restrictions should be imposed in response to other public health issues anyway – the annual flu season most prominently, but also to put far stricter curbs on vices such as junk food and alcohol. The argument being that, as a simple calculation, such restrictions would save lives and ease strains on healthcare systems.

Yet why we did we not do this before the pandemic? Because the consensus in society was that the right of individuals to live free, meaningful lives was more important than the need to serve a wider system, in the interests of capacity and efficiency. The State largely shaped its role around human behaviour, rather than trying to shape human behaviour, in other words.

That is not to say that things like efficiency and capacity do not matter. Efficiency tends to enhance wealth and prosperity (there is a reason why the most corrupt countries also tend to be the poorest). Capacity provides resilience for unforeseen events. But these should not be the organising principles of society.

From the world of work, to how the State relates to our daily lives, if we follow this logic of subsuming our personal interests in favour of the interests of wider systems too far, we risk losing what makes life enjoyable and worthwhile. Let’s go back to the old normal.

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