People will have their own view about the extent to which the Covid-19 pandemic will continue to existentially threaten our economic order, lifestyles, aspirations and opportunities, but one thing that has attempted to hasten our sense that ‘normality’ is returning has been the ‘Let’s get back to work’ mantra.
It’s a sign of how central work is in our lives that its resumption is one of the defining elements of what constitutes normality. I mean, it could instead be ‘Let’s get back to learning’, ‘Let’s get back to the allotment’, or ‘Let’s go over the park for a kickabout with the kids’. But no, it’s get back to work, the office, the commute…
Except, there is a burgeoning recognition that returning to work should no longer be automatically conflated with returning to the office. Partly this is in response to the public health risks that offices pose in spreading and incubating the virus, before one considers the cattle wagons that constitute our rail rolling stock. But it is also a recognition that a combination of enforced homeworking, lockdown and furlough has given people an insight into different working arrangements. It will be a difficult genie to put back in the bottle (I am actually of the view that it has given society a glimpse into a post-work future. A glimpse behind the curtain of a future where automation and artificial intelligence has co-opted some of what we once did in exchange for a wage. But that is a debate for another day and one which, sadly, will be deprived the remarkable insight and wisdom of David Graeber, RIP).
Home v Office
Though it is arguably an arbitrary distinction to focus on the location of work – rather than its more conceptual economic value, intrinsic worth, social function or its harmful externalities – there is a worrying trend within the discourse of how we more immediately return to work that has motivated this and a recent thread I posted on Twitter.
At this point I must declare an interest. I am involved with Indycube and advocate of its mission to make work fairer. I’ve also recently helped Insole Court in Llandaff to open its own independent coworking space (Desgiau’r Modurdy | Motor House Desks). Though I have no financial stake in the venture it deserves to prosper.
Quite simply, the binary options of working from home or the office may well suit employers but for a great many people one’s home is not available and/or suitable to work from, even on an occasional basis. The relatively privileged perspective of being a homeowner with a spare room or dedicated office; whose kids have flown the nest; or who is able to share the childcare of school age children with a partner with flexible working patterns; and so on, must not be allowed to dominate discourse about working locations.
There are certainly advantages to working from home for some people, some of the time. It would be hypocritical of me to not acknowledge that I have on many occasion benefited from it over the years. But as the routine default? Absolutely no way.
People have by and large been resilient, adaptable and patient with home-working arrangements during lockdown. But such resourcefulness is easier when something is a novelty. I wonder whether my adaptability has been honed in community work where I have worked from all sorts of locations down the years: the church hall, the housing office, coffee shops, the train, the council office, the community centre, the ‘Stute, the club, from my car. Streets and estates have been ‘my office’. And, yes, my home has been too. I have spent only a fraction of my career at a dedicated office desk, and the majority of it somewhere else.
If I can get used to it, then so can everyone else, right? Perhaps, but I have largely had the freedom to choose where I work from. And this is the key that the reductive binary option of home vs office appears to miss. Moreover, it is not necessarily a rational choice that people are faced with.
What choice is faced by the worker in an abusive domestic relationship if the office isn’t available to them?
What choice is faced by the young person still living at home or in shared accommodation?
What choice is faced by the person suffering neighbour harassment or discrimination?
What choice is faced by the person whose partner works shifts and sleeps during the day?
What choice is faced by the person living in substandard rented accommodation?
What choice is faced by the couple whose relationship is on the rocks but who now have to sit around the same dining table?
These people must be empowered to be able to push back against the binary choice that some employers may put on the table. But work is already extremely precarious for many, and with huge post-furlough lay-offs expected, a scared workforce will become a compliant one. In this respect one hopes that trade unions are already primed to act. As well as being precarious, for too many work is unhealthy, exploitative and is keeping workers and their families in poverty. But given the labour movement’s ineffectiveness, acquiescence or connivance with these modern trends, the prospects of trade unions taking up the cudgels might not be encouraging.
As much as only a few people will surely miss the costliness, inefficiency and environmental harm of commuting, it did at least serve to signify a clear split between one’s domestic and work lives (notwithstanding the temptation to check the emails on the way in). When you are working at the dining table opposite your partner up to five days a week, that split becomes much more opaque.
We are increasingly aware of the externalities that our capitalist system offsets – pollution and environmental costs, systemic risk – but we might increasingly add the corrosive emotional impact on relationships and families. Are marriage counselling fees claimable on expenses?
There’s also the cost of increased utilities’ consumption. Presumably, a proportion of the overheads that organisations in all sectors factor-in to contracts, grant bids and applications for core funding will be passed onto employees in a full-cost, tax efficient manner? Again, I hope trade unions’ accountancy and employment law specialists are already on top of this – their occupational health therapists will need to be alert to the inevitable increase in neck, back and wrist pain from unsuitable homeworking.
Distinguished sociologist Ray Oldenburg has researched so-called ‘third places’: those spaces where different people come together to socialise, debate, dine, play, worship, organise, and so on. They are distinct from one’s home and hearth (first places) and the workplace (second places). A broad range of spaces come under the heading of third places. Community and communal spaces such as chapels, institutes, and community centres. Third places are not solely public, community or not-for profit owned. Consider the social value of, for example, private ventures such as salons and barbers to Afro-Caribbean communities; the prominence of die Kaffeehäuser in early C20th Viennese culture; the British pub; or Idomeneo Faracci’s Italian cafe to the eponymous Dark Philosophers in Gwyn Thomas’s classic novel where Idomeneo’s policy is to welcome people into the café irrespective of whether they purchase anything, reasoning that ‘it was a very poor voter who went through life without ever buying anything’.
Those teenagers hanging out outside the shops? That’s a third place too.
With the pandemic likely to blur the lines between second places and workers’ first places, a traditional ‘workerist’ perspective might seek to push back against demands to work from home. The owners’ modern version of a lockout will be to merely sell off the office or let the lease run down on their current location. I am of the view that the battleground should not be where first (home) and second (work) places risk converging, but rather we should be carving out an opportunity for second and third places to become complementary; at least in the short-term while the effects of the pandemic are ongoing.
This approach allows the left to explore the rich potential for new hybrid community-owned ‘second-third’ places that not only benefit workers, but the wider cynefin in which these spaces exist, including the private sector.
I have lost count of the number of times I and other community workers have lamented the difficulty in engaging working people. Disadvantaged communities, peri-urban communities, and rural areas chronically de-populate on a daily basis. The consequence is not just being deprived of valuable social capital every day, but it congests the golden window that opens up between approximately 5.30-9pm Monday to Thursday (seldom Friday let’s be honest) for working people to be leapt on by the community worker for their attention, ideas, contribution, input, consent or their signature.
And this competes with working people’s opportunity to go to choir practice, take football training, nip to the allotment, call in to the care-home to see mam or dad, go to the gym, go to prayer, go to the evening class, help the kids with their homework, go to parents’ evening…..
As Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir have demonstrated in their book Scarcity: Why having so little means so much, people’s bandwidth is invariably programmed to focus on only the imperative or the immediate. Third spaces offer scope to not just #KillTheCommute but embed work in the nuances of community life and retain, invest and harness social capital for communities’ own ends, and not for the benefit of the destination of the daily emigrants.
Supporting the Precariat
Hybrid second-third spaces are perfectly placed to allow co-operative structures and connections to take root and which help spread the risk of working independently – a form of working that was predicted to increase in Wales before the pandemic – and which the Co-operative movement has already identified is incredibly precarious. For example, the Not Alone report identified that the earnings of as many as 77% of self-employed people do not lift them above the poverty line, so they rely on savings, credit (formal and informal) and the earnings of others to get by. Their well-rehearsed ‘game-face’ conceals this.
In the same way the lack of a driving licence and access to a car has discriminated against people from gaining employment, what are the chances of the lack of a suitable non-office working environment becoming a post-pandemic barrier to employment and career progression? If you are struggling to stay on the employment ladder, talk of homeworking as some radical change in the labour market – as some managers appear to be – is nonsense. It offers no escape from, and more exploitation by, more-of-the-same for these people, whom David Harvey calls the ‘precariat’.
And the rungs the precariat are on are about to get a lot more crowded.
Work in a capitalist system will continue to restructure and will adapt to insulate certain privileges among certain groups, as it always has done. Workers themselves and groups representing the precariat, such as Undod, therefore need to aggressively aim for the middle ground – something the radical left is seldom inclined to do! – but in this respect the middle ground is defined as affordable, shared, communal coworking spaces that are close to home and hearth. These spaces are quite cheap to get up and running and are inherently asset-based in approach i.e., value and recognise what strengths already exist in communities (ties, connections, contacts and networks, existing facilities); rather than focus on what communities don’t have. They are in stark contrast to many of the urban models of coworking which are wedded to tired, extractive agglomerative models of growth and the public underwriting of loss (you know who they are….).
Fight for the right
There are challenges though.
These spaces are not inherently virtuous though and those people passing through them must remain cognisant for the need to be inclusive and tolerant. They must also position themselves not only as non-gentrifiying but anti-gentrification.
As Undod has campaigned the lack of community right-to-buy legislation in Wales, in contrast to England and the land reform agenda in Scotland, means the ability of communities to self-organise to prepare to acquire ownership of community assets is in more open competition with private and corporate interests. In Wales a more discursive and facilitated approach has been favoured in which assets are transferred to community ownership, but critically only from public ownership – another example of a ‘Made In Wales’, clear red water distinctiveness. It rejects the aggressive lexicon of the market in favour of typically managerial language of partnership building. But all the while have private interests not continued to rapaciously buy everything up?
Longer-term new legislation is required, but in the short-term the huge economic disruption brought by the pandemic will probably turn up some spaces that can be used.
It is also extremely naive to think that the mass evacuation from city centre and out-of-town office blocks will be benign on the value of our pension funds. Anyone who knows what the owners of office chambers in Cardiff city centre typically command in annual rents (for a pitiful level of service and maintenance let it be said), will know how these commercial interests operate. They know how to fight dirty and have a war chest to fund the skirmishes.
The Welsh Government has recently published its strategy for post-Covid reconstruction and within it is a commitment to develop closer-to-home remote working hubs. On paper this is welcome but more of the same managerial statist benevolence, via local authorities or its usual non-governmental sponsored suspects, won’t generate genuinely community and/or worker-owned spaces. In the rush to do something in the final months of this Senedd term there is a risk that the state colonises a space that with the temperately correct nurturing could help support the building of resilient communities and networks of workers, working across all sectors.
This should comprise development work that includes:
- the freeing up of budgets for expenditure on what matters to workers; if a no-questions-asked £10,000 handout to the owners of registered business addresses, can happen in a time of crisis as it did earlier in the the pandemic, then this is achievable with political will
- sympathetic and enabling planning appraisal for new spaces
- by working to community organising and development principles with self-identifying communities, including communities of interest, and not being wedded to administratively-defined geographies
- working through local community organisations/networks to broker between the state and communities
- underwriting the costs related to guidance on IT cloud usage, data protection, etc to ensure workers don’t inadvertently breach legal obligations in such coworking environments
- underwriting tax advice for spaces and their coworkers to be tax efficient for all
- commission existing coworking spaces to advise new ones to encourage peer connections
- prioritising those that are operated in/by not-for-profit and co-operative ventures over those that will line the pockets of speculative property developers and landlords
- provide low cost interest-free loans for spaces to buy insurance policies and other financial products in bulk for workers
- by committing to handing over spaces to groups of workers if it is not possible for them to run from the start
As the sociologist Robert Putnam noted observed in the aftermath of 9/11, vocal calls across American society focused on the ‘me’ and the ‘I’ to be re-fashioned with a greater emphasis on the ‘we’ and the ‘us’ lasted for only about six months. At this point, the old scorched earth values of short-term profit, competitiveness and winner-takes-all had reaffirmed themselves. The pandemic is arguably an existential trauma similar in impact to 9/11, and for a ‘new normal’ to be conceived Putnam’s observations suggest the desire to create one has to be sustained and is not inevitable. Just consider how important these new spaces could be in carving out new bottom-up, community-owned spaces for the reproduction of social capital.
Main pic: Dusty Forge, Ely by the author