From the Prime Minister downwards there are many influential voices asking “When will we get back to normal work patterns”. The simple answer is “Never”.
The question is based on the assumption that we can just turn the clock back and return to the way we worked before the Coronavirus crisis occurred. But that would mean ignoring all the lessons we have learned over the last five months. It seems that the main motivation in getting people to return to work in town and city centres is to revive the economy and help service businesses such as coffee shops and sandwich bars to survive. This is suggesting that people should return to an outdated and inefficient way of working in order to support a service industry that has built up around it.
There have been numerous times in history where people have resisted change because of vested interests in the status quo. In the 19th Century Luddites destroyed textile machinery because they were threatened by progress. In the early 20th Century the President of the Michigan Savings Bank advised Henry Ford’s Lawyer not to invest in the company on the grounds that “the horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty”. Now in the 21st Century we have been forced out of our outdated mode of working by a virus and we’ve proved that it is very effective, only to be ushered back to the old ways to prop up the hospitality sector.
The Chief Executive of Schroders, in announcing that none of his employees need to return to the office even after the pandemic is over, said “this has accelerated the move towards flexible working by 20 years”. We were moving towards a distributed working model anyway and the virus has just shortened the timeframe. It may have taken 20 years for leaders at the beginning of the 20th century to realise that the automobile was here to stay, let’s hope it doesn’t take 20 years in the 21st Century to realise the world has changed. Suggesting that people should get in their cars and sit in traffic or get onto crowded rush-hour public transport in order to sit at a computer in an office is the equivalent of “the horse is here to stay”. We can look back 100 years later and see how ridiculous that statement was, let’s hope we don’t look equally ridiculous to our grandchildren.