“I live in my own little world. But its ok, they know me here.” –
There have been a few articles popping up lately extolling the virtues and the potentials of converting part of your home into an office. Take this article in the Financial Times from January as an example. A year since the start of the first UK Lockdown and many of us who have transitioned to home working are starting to adapt to this being a long term move or are at least getting a bit sick of taking up so much space in the living room or at the dining table. Many are starting to look at ways to modify their homes to make working from home more comfortable.
I know because I’m currently in the process of doing precisely this. I’m particularly looking forward to my fiancée and I not tripping over each other while we’re both working (particularly when one of us is in a video meeting or giving a virtual public talk) and I’m looking forward to creating a line again between our working space and our living space.
But I must check my privilege when discussing this kind of thing. As a home owner with a job that can be worked from home, I am in the very fortunate position of being able to think about and do this kind of thing. Not everyone is.
The Limits of Change
A lot of the changes that we’ve made to survive Covid are the same changes that we are going to have to do to survive the Climate Emergency anyway (my transport carbon footprint has reduced by at least 90% since I started working from home) so we have to assume that they are here for the long term. Certainly at Common Weal we have collectively decided to make working from home the default assumption permanently.
This isn’t, of course, to say that I’m significantly better off for working from home. Rishi Sunak said that “those who have built up savings” must go on a post-pandemic spending spree to compensate. “Shop Till You Drop“. Literally, if you can. The known limitations with relying on a growth-based consumer economy aside, what I’ve saved in those stereotypical commuting costs, morning coffees and office lunches has been spent on increased costs elsewhere on everything from heating to toilet paper (the toilet paper industry went through a massive structural shift last year and its story is a fascinating example of how the supply chain world has been changed by Covid).
But just as not every job can be worked from home, not every home is suitable for work. Even if it’s structurally possible, one’s home environment may not make it easy for any number of reasons from size, setup, the needs of others living with you etc. The needs of kids or folk who require care especially will take priority and the demands of home learning on limited internet bandwidth is just another small reason that might limit someone’s ability to work from home even if they technically can (My partner and I don’t have kids – another privilege of ours when it comes to considering this issue).
And we know that the jobs most likely to be workable from home are the ones most likely to be well paid.
The poorest among us are being forced to work in the face of a lethal pandemic. There will be a group of people who can technically work from home but cannot afford to make the modifications to their home to make it possible to do so.
And then there are folk who cannot make those modifications at all because they don’t own their home. Renters have been quiet consistently deliberately forgotten about throughout this pandemic. For every story about the extension of eviction bans, there’s another realisation that the lack of attention on the underlying issues means that many of those evictions will likely happen as soon as the stay of execution is lifted as rent arrears and other debts continue to rack up.
With regards to the topic of home working though, tenants often have very little ability to modify their home to better suit their needs even if they have the ability to do so. Their homes are often smaller but more critically tenants in Scotland have very little right to make modifications to their home (unlike in countries in Germany where unless you’re making a major structural change you have much more freedom in this regard). Conversations on how to enable this will vary from directly working with an accommodating landlord, through not being able to speak to an absentee landlord, out to trying to convince a landlord who is attempting to throw you out into the street during a pandemic that they should not only not do that but that they should also build you an office in the loft.
Into Boris’s Breach
It is not for these reasons that Boris Johnson announced this weekend that he wants us to get back to the office as soon as possible. He’s not thinking of our wellbeing or our creativity. If he was, he wouldn’t have branded those of us working from home as having “quite a few days off“. He’s much more concerned about the over-leveraged property bubble of the office leasing sector and the possibility of it collapsing if many of us decide that we can work more effectively from home than we can after wasting up to several hours a day in a traffic jam. He’s concerned that few commuters on public transport mean that it would be more effective to upgrade long-neglected local transport networks than it would be to build national scale projects designed to move people into London or to move people around London, or to encourage people to fly to London instead of taking his train.
And so, to justify his outdated idea of infrastructure he wants us all to dive back into the face of the pandemic before we’re all vaccinated. Just like “Eat Out to Help Out” and his idea of “herd immunity” before it, Capitalism and consumerism must come before people. The climate doesn’t even get a look in.
The Future Is Local
There is another dystopian future that doesn’t involve returning to the office though. That’s the almost Surrogates-like one where we who can work from home almost never have to leave our boxes (especially if we shop online). It’s one that does lose that camaraderie between workmates but more crucially we become even more expendable to employers who no longer even need to look us in the eye when they fire us. Unionisation and solidarity will become even more vital in the years to come.
We may have to think about how we design new homes to make them easier to work from. We may want to think about how we can cater for folk who work office jobs but either don’t want to go back to commutes or do not have a home that can be easily worked from. Co-working spaces that offer everything from permanent offices, ad-hoc meeting rooms and rentable hot-seat desks might be an option here – especially if they can be based within communities (possibly as part of the “20-minute neighbourhood” idea that’s gaining traction).
Outwith work though we need to think about how we use our communities to, as Rishi Sunak put it, “Have Fun” and that should be possible to do in ways that don’t involve repeated, wasteful consumerism. Yes, it should involve pubs, restaurants, cafes etc. It should involve our sports, arts and cultural spaces. These should be supported until they can be safely used again. We should think about different ways to spend time with our friends and family and ways in which we can rediscover our community by meeting people accidently. Rather than going out to buy a flurry of new power tools to modify our homes, we should be able to borrow them from our local tool library and perhaps learn how to use them better while we’re there. Maybe instead of rushing back to our “daily grind” we can reallocate some of our commuting time into a four-day week and get to spend some actual time having fun. The best thing about this is that we can do it while helping to solve the next big catastrophe. Boris Johnson thinks we should sacrifice ourselves to save his buddies’ investments. I think we should sacrifice the worst parts of our lives to help save the planet. If we pick the former coming out of the pandemic, we won’t have time to switch to the latter going into the climate emergency.