The Tug of War over Work

There’s a war on, but it’s a weird war. So weird, most of the folks fighting it don’t even know they’re in a war. But they are. It’s a war over work.

The roots of this war lie back more than fifty years; when sociologist Daniel Bell published The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting back in 1973, he confidently predicted a fundamental shift in work – brought on by automation, an erosion of ‘big’ industrial ventures, and a host of reinforcing economic and social trends. Half of that happened; the Western economies broadly de-industrialised – that role taken up by China – but the shift in work away from the 5-days 40-hours model (pioneered first in Victoria in the 1860s) never happened. Workers came into the office every day, sat at their desks every day, then went home every evening – long past any need to work together within a workplace increasingly linked by computing and communications technologies.

Only when the pandemic forced a sudden and total change in the way we work could we see what had always been obvious: all of our ways of working had long been unnecessary, held in place by inertia and tradition and fear. We pivoted away from those practices and almost instantaneously established new work practices which, if anything, only increased productivity.

How did we miss this? On the one hand, no one really believed that work could be performed without the continuous oversight of ‘the boss’; on the other hand, no one really believed that our incredible infrastructure of tools and techniques could fill the gap, allowing a very broad range of tasks to be performed anywhere. We learned the office wasn’t a place so much as a set of relationships and practices – something Daniel Bell pointed out half a century ago.

In those opening days of the pandemic we all believed our economies would come crashing down; central banks printed money, governments handed out stimulus cheques, and everyone hoarded toilet paper. Meanwhile, the basic economic activities of business carried on largely uninterrupted. We knew what to do, we had the tools to allow us to do it – so we went and got it done. Those three years weren’t entirely comfortable, but we learned a lot about new ways of working, and that knowledge has stuck with us.

The first and most important thing we learned is that working from home (or, really, anywhere) is vastly more productive than working from an office. Why? The most obvious and least-examined reason is the commute. Employees invest at least an hour, five days a week, getting back and forth to the office. Some, depending on distance and traffic and weather conditions, spend a lot more time. That time investment is lost, poured out on the ground, with zero productivity return. Take the commute out of the equation and the employee has at least one more hour per day of productive time available to them. Depending on how that gets counted – whether one more hour in addition to the eight worked, or one hour from the sixteen we’re awake – that’s somewhere between six and twelve percent more productivity, just by quitting the commute.

Yet, because we have never accounted for the cost of the commute in the economics of work – after all, we have always expected the employee to wear that cost to their productivity – the productivity gains of work-from-anywhere haven’t accrued to employers. They’ve gone entirely to the employee, who finds themselves with more time for housework, family care, or just goofing off. Given these productivity gains accrue to the workers, they aren’t measured by any economic statisticians, and therefore don’t show up in either productivity or GDP growth, despite a real growth in productivity because hours are no longer wasted in commuting.

Now employers want employees back in the office. The reasons for this vary, but boil down to a poorly-disguised need for control; bosses don’t trust workers they can’t see working – this, despite the fact that we have better tools and metrics for productivity than ever before. Instead, bosses make noises about ‘collaboration’ and ‘teamwork’ and how ‘creativity’ can’t be expressed over a Zoom call. While there is some truth to these assertions – certainly we work best creatively when in the same room together – they represent only a small portion of the work we perform. Why have workers waste hours of their week commuting to an office in preparation for occasional creative activities?

That’s the current battle line drawn in this weird war over work. Yes, there are some outstandingly good reasons to come back into the office; but returning to the office more than occasionally – for specific, well-articulated reasons – only makes sense for certain classes of work, and certain classes of worker. Those new to their tasks need mentoring and all of the implicit learning that happens within an office environment, but once they’re well trained, they should be able to reap the ‘productivity dividend’ that lets them work from anywhere. That’s the prize to keep them focused on their upskilling. All of us fall into this category – either as mentor or trainee – from time to time in our careers, so we all need to acknowledge that the future of work isn’t all-in or all-remote; it’s flexibility, hybridity, and negotiation.

If things go on as they have, we’ll see a differentiation between two classes of employers: those who insist on a visible presence in offices, and those who have adopted a more relaxed attitude, focusing on outcomes over output. Even those who want workers at their desks will be confronting a realistic demand to include commute time as working hours, rather than simply framing it as an endless offering of lost hours by the employee to their employer.

We’ve discovered another form of productivity, and it’s changed the way we think of work. What we do with this discovery – and this new empowerment of employees – will determine how long we wage this war over work, and who walks away the winner.