Paul Hopkins: How staying at home will get the job done
Notwithstanding that no life is the proverbial bed of roses, the message 'Don't bother coming back to the office', in less extraordinary times, might strike dread in most of us.
One of the benefits of the pandemic has been the realisation that many jobs can be done remotely and you no longer need to be chained to a desk from 9 to 5. With Zoom and such, instead of face-to-face meetings, remote working lifestyles look more and more achievable.
Leo Varadkar, the new Tanaiste and Minister for Employment, would agree. His department has just set up a public consultation forum to examine the viability of such a potentially dramatic shift in how we work and then play. He rightly says that the benefits to rural Ireland, particularly economically, could be huge, assuming we can sort out the high-speed internet thingy. (In the UK, Health Secretary Mark Hancock says he will consider legislation to make mandatory the option of remote working.)
The idea that office life per se is over is somewhat overstated. Not everyone loves working away on the sofa day after day, panicking about being out of the, eh, corporate loop. But for those who have the choice to work from home, the collective dark days we have endured, may be, in fact must be, prompting a reassessment of what truly matters in life.
Commuting parents, who once rarely saw their children awake, have got used to the casual intimacy of being around them all day long. In Facebook feeds more than one hard-hitting acquaintance of mine has melted into a babbling bubble of baby pictures. For the less sentimental, the money saved from not commuting, lunches et al, is adding up; and by now we are au fait with the environmental benefits of reducing traffic on our roads.
For equally as many, working from home has not been plain sailing. Many had little choice in the decision, limited time to prepare, patchy technology skills, and inadequate home workspaces. Yet, some thrived and they (seven out of 10 in one survey) anticipate they will, hopefully, continue to work from home.
There are drawbacks, what with kids under your feet and partners sparring once too often. Easy access to the fridge has meant weight gain for some, while others have languished at their screens for hours, sitting in awkward positions with no breaks. Excessive screen-time can damage the retina and poorly designed workplaces can lead to back pain, while sedentary behaviour is associated with a range of health issues, including higher risks of cancers and cardiac problems.
Avoiding the daily commute saves (now precious) time and, as mentioned, money. However, commuting serves a valuable function often overlooked: it gives us time to readjust between work and non-work roles, especially important in demanding jobs. Also, when we lose this 'buffer zone' of commuting, too often the time saved is gobbled up by more work, and long hours can bring even more stress, poor sleep and the dreaded high-blood pressure.
Meantime, employers need to respect boundaries, clarifying when employees need to be available, and have agreements about email and phone access outside of business hours, something lost to a lot of young professionals today.
All that said, those who will continue to work from home can intersperse their work and family time to benefit the entire family; for example, by using a work break to read a story or share a meal. Such quality time can have a significant impact on children's development and emotional well-being.
Sadly, not every one has those close family relationships, so contact with fellow-workers can be an essential source of support for many. Research shows that those who indulge in office 'small talk' experience "more positive emotions" and end the workday in a better frame of mind. The spontaneity of such small talk is hard to replicate in a virtual context.
The good news is that the island of Barbados is keen to cash in on remote working by trying to tempt people to stay long-term on the Caribbean island. Premier Mia Amor Mottle last week said the Bajan government would be introducing a 12-month visa programme to allow visitors to work remotely for up to a year.
I can see it now. Sun, sea and sensuality when I dash off next week's column. For a whole year. Assuming, I can get a flight that is...
Paul Hopkins column appears every Tuesday in the paper.