When you go back to work after the Easter weekend, ask yourself: do I really need to be here?

Elizabeth Day
People sunbathe and enjoy the sea at Postiguet beach during the Good Friday of the Holy Week in Alicante, eastern Spain, 14 April 2017 - EFE

The internet is not a place for unfocused minds. Consider that in the time I’ve taken to write that sentence, I’ve already ordered 50 English Breakfast teabags and a packet of courgettes on Ocado and checked Twitter to ensure we haven’t been pushed to the brink of nuclear war in the past half hour.

The author Zadie Smith famously disables the internet on her computer while she’s writing novels. It’s probably why she’s hailed as one of the 21st century’s greatest creative minds and I’m, well, not.

Soon Britons will slouch reluctantly back to work after the long weekend. Doubtless we will see a big spike in web-enabled displacement activity from work computers as people push themselves inch by grudging inch out of the holiday mindset.

And now we know civil servants are not immune to the joys of the refresh button, thanks to questions posed in Parliament by Labour MP Justin Madders.

Zadie Smith: internet sceptic Credit: Brian Dowling/Getty

It seems the people charged with the safe execution of our democracy on a daily basis also spend hours online visiting sites that bear only the most tangential relevance to what they should be doing.

Officials in the Foreign Office favour Facebook: perhaps they’re monitoring their friends’ holiday photos in case any of them happens to be visiting an Isil stronghold on their Easter break, but I suspect not. Over at the Serious Fraud Office, they prefer Amazon, while staff at the Ministry of Defence are devotees of the property website Rightmove.

I can understand the impulse. Rightmove is one of my personal favourites and I’ve spent many a happy hour imagining an alternative life for myself living in the open-plan serenity of a five-bedroomed house on the Cornish coast complete with basement sauna and ornamental herb garden.

Yet I still manage to meet my deadlines. In fact, I treat my occasional forays into the internet’s scenic B-roads as necessary breaks from the normal working day: the online equivalent of a cup of tea.

And to give these civil servants the benefit of the doubt, I’m not sure their browsing histories reflect a lack of diligence. If anything, I suspect it is a reflection of having too much time on their hands. 

Our professional lives have undergone a dramatic reinvention over the past 20 years. The internet has transformed them, both by the speed with which one can fact-find and the connective opportunities it affords us. When I had my first work experience as a 17-year-old on a national newspaper, there was a single computer in the newsroom hooked up the internet.

Access to this computer was strictly limited so that everyone got a chance to use it. And if you couldn’t get a slot, you had to rely on old-fashioned tactics: wading through brown envelopes of library cuttings or actually speaking to someone on the telephone. This all took time.

It probably looked something like this Credit: SSPL/Getty

But now the world has sped up. It’s not just the internet. As Robert Colvile points out in his intriguing book The Great Acceleration, chickens grow four times more quickly than 50 years ago. Walking speeds went up by 10 per cent between the early Nineties and 2006. The average length of a film shot has declined from 10 seconds in the Forties to less than four seconds.

For civil servants and office workers around the country, this is both good and bad. Good in that we can do things more quickly. Bad in that our office culture has not kept pace with technological advancements.

It’s ridiculous that we still expect people to tramp into work on crowded public transport for a 9am start and then sit there, like crash-test dummies, for an eight-hour time-frame that is an outdated legacy from a different age.

We’re obsessed with presenteeism: the notion that a job cannot be properly executed unless an employee is at their desk. And yet because the world around us has got quicker and more efficient, we can now complete tasks in minutes rather than hours or hours rather than days.

Those civil servants watching YouTube videos are probably just whiling away spare time until they get to go home. Politicians talk a good game on flexible working, but in many offices it remains a pipe dream.

There’s a sense that a person choosing to work from home or a woman returning from maternity leave and asking for a change in hours is taking the soft option. In truth, they’re probably the most efficient workers of all, even with the distraction of YouTube and Rightmove.

Anyway, back to my Ocado shop.

How to ask for flexible working

 

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