Throughout history there has been — and forevermore there will remain — a cavernous gap in the ideals of an employer and their work force.
The arguments on both sides have their merits; workers are typically exploited, while bosses try to keep things afloat while under-resourced. Wherever you stand personally, you no doubt hold your own laundry list of events that would ultimately dig your heels even deeper into the ground.
Every few decades or so, something definitive happens that rocks that relationship to the core, whether it is the establishment of the middle class or the rise of unionisation. While fairly trivial when compared to those previous two examples, modern employees would see their own groundbreaking moment in the year of our lord, 2020.
I won’t labour over the impacts of COVID-19 too extensively. It’s disingenuous to current readers who are still feeling its effects, and no doubt overplayed to future generations thumbing through the archives down the track.
I’m not actually referring directly to the pandemic itself (something I briefly dabbled with in the winter of 2022) but the way it would impact our livelihoods even in the aftermath of its apex. In order to survive, businesses would have to be mobile, flexible. The notion of “working from home” had always been like some fantastical beast, relegated only to extreme examples or Simpsons episodes.
Once our lives were shelved for an indeterminate period of time, many workplaces shifted to 100% remote arrangements. Obviously, this would work much better for some roles than others, and for the purpose of this piece, I will primarily draw from personal experience. I’m not about to tout that remote work is perfect in all instances, merely because it is convenient. It comes down to what the person is supposed to do, and how dedicated that person remains to doing it.
From January 2020 until August 2022, I was employed full-time at a medicolegal firm in an administrative capacity. I won’t bore you with the minutiae of what medicolegal actually is — by its very nature, it’s a boring industry unless you’re one of two parties being grossly overpaid — but at its heart, my role required me to receive and review medical documents, then prepare templates for subsequent doctor’s reports.
With the nation under lockdown, reports were limited only to screen-based telehealth consultations; not a major issue for psychiatric industries, though more hands-on ailments were clearly impeded in their accuracy.
What could I do to alleviate clients’ concerns in these unprecedented times? I could be diligent and precise. The briefs were often extensive to the point of ridiculous, with page numbers stretching into the thousands. Regardless, I would review the materials they purportedly provided, to prevent headaches for the medical experts, the lawyers themselves, and the business as a whole.
Hour after hour, I sat at my desk from my home office, entering a sense of flow unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Sending emails, making phone calls, communicating with my team, I was unstoppable. In a few short weeks, I had gone from a layman to a subject matter expert, able to differentiate the SIGMD from the GEPIC without batting an eyelid.
For 260 days, I became the perfect employee; grateful, productive and dedicated. The lockdown wasn’t the reason for this ascension, but I would be lying if I said the atmosphere hadn’t proven to be a catalyst for marked improvement.
Then, it happened. Despite the ongoing active cases and daily reports of COVID-related deaths, we were told that it was time to return to normal life. Not only by our employers, but by the very government who had put us into lockdown in the first place.
Again, I must be transparent: I voice my concerns from a place of personal experience. For some businesses, on-site employees were the difference between a company coming back from the brink or ultimately going under.
Every example is different. And for my example, there is no fucking reason why I should have been forced back into that office, other than a bunch of wealthy old people felt that the lack of a physical presence had made them ever so slightly less wealthy.
Now, it was back to the hour-and-a-half commute. Back to the constant background chatter of unfocussed colleagues. Back to hours of lost progress thanks to shaky internet connections. Back to three personal heaters raising the temperature of the room to unreasonable levels. The interruptions were constant, and for the most part, unnecessary. Every simple question that would have been left to common sense while working in isolation, was instead aired out without even a cursory attempt at reaching a solution.
The infrastructure was back in place, and now, all I could see were the many, many cracks that had rendered it obsolete in the first place. This was not where I was supposed to be, not after I had proven that my optimal position wasn’t even in the same suburb. And I know I wasn’t alone in this.
The discourse on the topic has been exhaustive, with raw figures seeming to favour workplace flexibility. As per Psychology Today, “a two-year study published in February 2021 of 3 million employees at 715 U.S. companies, including many from the Fortune 500 list, showed that working from home improved employee productivity by an average of 6 percent.
“Another survey of 800 employers found that 94 percent of employers said their employees were just as productive or even more productive while working remotely. And 83 percent of workers said they were happy with remote work arrangements, while only 7 percent wanted to return to an office immediately. Most workers said they wanted a hybrid setup when they do eventually return to their workplaces, splitting their time between home and the office.”
A foreword in a study published by the Australian government stated, “two tentative conclusions emerge: first, this is broadly a beneficial evolution in the way we work; and second, even in the face of a significant and sudden change, our firms, our cities and our regulatory frameworks have significant capacity to adapt.”
The key takeaways here: employers, like their workforce, ought to be flexible, and willing to adapt. Had a hybrid working arrangement ever been floated past me, perhaps I would still be with that miserable company. But no, I was instead treated with a hardline stance of “the way things have to be”.
On a personal level, I was dealing with doctors who were, predominantly, arrogant old men with specific demands. They must have their paperwork early. It must be printed and sorted accordingly. They must have staff at their disposal to fetch them coffee and stroke their ego. Else, someone must be there that they may vent their frustrations if these exact conditions were unmet.
We’re talking about a medical industry where fax machines are still the standard and sometimes only form of document transmission — because, long story short, old white men — and any staff member without a medical degree is treated with less dignity than a scalpel. Afterwards, they’ll zip off in their sports cars, leaving a mess of scattered paperwork and dirty crockery in their wake.
Perhaps not coincidentally, it was society’s co-called elite who would echo these sentiments that their underlings be monitored directly under the watchful eye provided by a brick-and-mortar office.
Who could forget the rantings of billionaire fuckwit, Elon Musk, whose opinions on the matter included such nuggets as “All the Covid stay-at-home stuff has tricked people into thinking that you don’t actually need to work hard” and that anyone who refused to adhere to his 40-hour office mandate “…should pretend to work somewhere else.”
Business requirements are one thing, however the idea of what’s normal has been changed in a manner that cannot be undone. We’ve seen what can happen in that strange, alternate universe, and lo and behold, many of us thrived as a result.
As a final matter of interest, I attempted to consolidate my information on those who were so vociferously opposed to the notion of working from home. Entrepreneur’s Tom Medema echoed Musk’s sentiment, stating issues of “communication gaps, degrading team cohesion, and a quickly disintegrating workplace culture.”
Beyond personal conjecture, I have now provided you with four independent opinions. The two that encourage flexible arrangements; a cognitive neuroscientist and government-sponsored research document. The two who speak against it, CEOs and self-confessed “entrepreneurs”.
Jeez, it’s almost as if the people who want you permanently back in the office are the ones who became rich off of your blood, sweat and tears in the first place? Funny coincidence, that.