One of the most divisive debates of this (one hopes) late-pandemic period has been the question of whether everybody in the country should return to offices as soon as possible and stay locked in there every minute of every weekday. If this sounds like a caricature of the pro-commute position: well, it isn’t much of one.
Pretty much from the moment the first vaccine went into the first bicep, sectors of the press have been jangling the keys to the office and firing up the coffee machine. Come on! Back to work! Enough of this so-called “working from home”: we all know you’re just in bed! Since the beginning of August, I have seen three separate opinion pieces with the motif that the new, flexible way of looking at work will capsize our economy if it’s allowed to become the norm. I find them relaxing as light reading while I’m in my plunge pool at midday, before my massage.
For the millions of people who, like me, have built businesses and careers from our kitchens, attics, spare rooms, it has been extraordinary to see working from home discussed as if it is a) a notion that was only invented in the past 18 months; b) intrinsically a cop-out, allowing what was once a productive slice of the workforce to idle about, watering their plants and catching up on Succession. Since the pandemic took hold, I have finished writing one book and written an entirely different one; today alone, I have written 3,000 words. I’m not saying that any of this work is good, necessarily; but it certainly wouldn’t have been better if I had spent an hour travelling to an office to write it, undergone an assessment with a supervisor halfway through, and been drawn into a nine-way discussion about the Fantasy Bake-Off league.
If you go into a station, you’ll see adverts which attempt to re-frame the relationship between us and our travels as a sort of romance, put on hold by the virus and now emotionally rekindled. “Here’s to the good old commute!”, “Our phone provider welcomes you back to this hot tunnel!” Many of my fellow workers-from-home are as rabidly against this sort of rhetoric as much as our enemies are against the idea that you are allowed to get up whenever you want. But not me. As someone whose night job (stand-up comedy) involves a large amount of commuting, I have seen things from both sides, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell – although she was not, as far as I know, singing about the modern conception of the workplace.
There is no denying the benefits of working somewhere that isn’t the same as the place you sleep, pay your bills, ill-advisedly try to make pizza with your kids because you have seen Jamie Oliver do it, and so on. A change of scene is valuable to creativity and to mental health in general. Lord knows, without any commuting at all, our priceless podcast industry would be on its knees.
Surely we understand now, though, that one does not have to travel 12 miles and retrieve a coffee cup from a deflating communal dishwasher to say “I have done a day of work”. Flexible working is not an idea to be feared. It merely reflects a human truth: some days, you will get more done than other days. Sometimes you will need to spend time with your family instead of finishing a report; other days you will feel sufficiently energised to work until 1am. Perhaps you will go into the office two, or three, days out of the five. You are, in other words, working like a human. Your job is not a 50-year extension of your school days. This does not seem a radical lesson to take from the Covid era.
But if you want to work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, again, go for it. We all work differently. It is time to acknowledge that. If you need me, I’ll be in my hammock.