Here’s a question. Mr Jelly is a mid-ranking manager at a forward-facing company whose workforce has been working remotely for the best part of 18 months. Currently his staff are looking for more amenable solutions to the new office comeback: ideally a working schedule that works for them.
Sophie has moved out to live in the country and would like to “compress” her working hours so that she can complete her five-day working week in four days. Trevor, a new father, wants to work from 6am to 3pm. Letitia is working from Buenos Aires, and likes to put in a flexi-schedule as and when it suits her: she tends to catch up on her emails and send over pitches for discussion on a Sunday because that’s just the way she likes to roll.
Two other colleagues are currently job-sharing, but neither of them can work after the school pick-up, or on Thursdays, because of various things for which they need to “be around”. Both prefer to down tools between 4pm and lights out, and log back on after their children have gone to bed. David came back to the office just after the first lockdown and has been a constant presence in the office, working in solitary confinement under a single office light. His working hours are strictly old-school. The question? When does Mr Jelly work?
There is much to ponder as we plan, arrange and resume the office schedule. That the pandemic has allowed for a collective reappraisal of our work/life balance has, for many, been an unexpected bonus — and unsurprisingly many people, when faced with choices, have found themselves prioritising their children, their personal schedules or their pets.
Mindful that we’ve all been through a brutal and unforgiving period in which mental health issues have made us more emotionally fragile, employers have offered more freedoms and flexibility around our availability and requirements, indulging requests for all sorts of dispensations that in a former era would have been summarily thrown out.
There is now an emphasis on mutual co-operation and understanding — we are reminded that female workers have more frequently been made redundant, and are still expected to take on more childcare. For the most part, we have weathered along a bit like soldiers: it will be over by Christmas, we have reassured each other. We just need to make things work.
But in making the working week more elastic, many employees now find themselves stretched to snapping point. Emails drip through with incessant continuity. The working day meanders from when the first person logs on for the morning, and drags on until the last person logs off at night. The office diary, meanwhile, is a chequerboard of schedules and out-of-office notifications, in which we all try to coalesce in small and inconvenient gaps.
Flexible working is only as flexible as one’s preparedness to bend around another colleague’s needs. It’s a terrible description. Elastic working hours, compressed weeks, part-time and job shares are actually the most unyielding schedules, with hard boundaries that predicate when and how someone will do their work.
And so I read with horror in the FT about proposals for a future in which we face a seven-day working week. The Work Unbound programme has been proposed by engineering group Arup, which has suggested to its 6,000 staff members that they can spread their “core work hours” over weekends, rather than work a traditional five-day week.
The experiment, which was piloted in Queensland, Australia, and Liverpool in the UK, allows professionals to “choose” to do weekend work so that they can use the afternoons to train for marathons or do the weekly shop. Actually, that sounds flippant: I think the dude interviewed wanted to go cycling in fact.
Am I alone in thinking this is total madness? That in being more accommodating to all these conflicting schedules, we are actually eroding the sense of when it is reasonable to work. The thought of encouraging my colleagues to send a ream of emails on a Sunday makes me nauseous, especially if we might prefer to address them ourselves in normal office hours. In an already fractured, disembodied system, this staccato method of communication is just messy and infuriating, a system in which people will ping messages around and no one will get things done.
Does nobody like to make decisions as a group now? Or maybe discuss a best plan of how to move ahead? Of course, there will always be people who catch up on work at weekends: and I am fully guilty. But few people work in such isolation that they need no interaction: and so, inevitably, these seven-day Unbound Workers will just shackle us to their weekend plans instead.
I may have little appetite for the return to the office. The incentives of free snacks and desk-side hang outs are small enticements to prod me from my living room. However, I will run towards the office if the act of being in that environment helps put even the faintest boundaries around the time I spend at work.
Yes the commute time is a fiddle, and you can, no question, bang out 50 emails in your kitchen in the time it takes to write a distracted desk-bound 10. But there is value in that arcane gesture of commuting, if only to put an end to an already endless day.
Written by: Jo Ellison
© Financial Times
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