We are not slaves to the economy

The headline screams “Huge cost of Aussies working from home”. The opening paragraph tells us “Australians will be urged to get back to work at the office”. The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped society so quickly that many of us are still adjusting. And while there’s been a huge focus on the health issues (and rightly so) and now a shift towards economic recovery, it seems to be forgotten that the last couple of months have been extremely jarring. Just as we are getting used to life in isolation, we’re being asked to change again.

The news, our social media feeds, business and personal video chats, phone calls and even the occasional random conversation we have at the shops (from at least 1.5m apart) always turns to life in isolation. Almost every activity we took for granted is now suffixed with ‘at home’.

We now work at home. Students got to classes at home. We have replaced the gym with exercise at home. We don’t go to the movies – we stream out entertainment at home. Even concerts from rock bands and symphony orchestras are streamed and watched at home.

There has certainly been an economic impact from the pandemic. Unemployment rates in western countries are likely to soar. And has the Australian Prime Minister said about the recession of the 1980s “unemployment went up in the elevator, and went down by the stairs.”

We can expect the same this time around.

In my household, we have two primary school aged kids who need regular support and supervision to stay on task with their school work. My wife is fortunate in that she can do most of her work from home. And I’ve been working from a home office for over 10 years.

Despite being fortunate to have access to a decent internet connection, enough computers and tablets and access to almost any software we need, it’s been a struggle to remain productive in our work. And a further pivot to whatever is next in our post-pandemic world is likely to cause more anxiety to an already stressed populace.

I’ve been working from home for a long time. And this is a challenging time for me. As well as the kids needing support, I no longer have my quiet workplace. I’m now sharing it with three other people much of the time.

Here’s what I think we should all do.

Be kind to yourself. Cut yourself some slack.

Andrew Barnes, in his book The 4 Day Week says that even at the best of times we only spend about 25% of our time at work being productive. His rationale for achieving a four-day working week is that if you can boost that to 35% you’ll be getting more done in four days.

Today, with many of us isolated from colleagues, grappling with managing children learning at home and having all the distractions that being home brings, that 25% may seem ambitious.

Don’t be harsh on yourself.

If you are a manager and want your team to come back to the office, think about what else they’re balancing. They may be legally able to come to the office but is that practical if they have children learning at home (despite the shorthand being used in the press it’s not home schooling)?

We are about to enter another period of change. People adjust in different ways and at different rates. The government’s imperative to restart the slowed economy is important. But let’s not forget that the economy is a tool that’s used to serve people.

Not the other way around.