Teuila Fuatai: Are flexible work conditions Covid’s silver lining?

OPINION:

The Earth is breathing.

The all-encompassing phrase invoked about this time last year as industry scaled back and the world locked down. A tad predictably but ever-so-entertainingly, it didn’t take long to achieve cliche status – standing in for anything good, bad, and ridiculous during Covid.

Clearer canals in Venice = the Earth is breathing.

Manchester United win = the Earth is breathing.

Trump is defeated = the Earth is breathing.

Jokes aside, 2020 was punctuated with a bunch of expressions that helped us traverse a truly gnarly set of circumstances. A year on, we’re fortunate enough to be asking questions about how we plan for “the new normal” in New Zealand. What should we expect in six months? How long until overseas travel is a viable option? How will things look in the next community outbreak?

For me, one of the key questions that continues to linger – loudly resurfacing each time alert levels change – is what we’ve learnt from the past year. Yes, it’s broad and at times angst-inducing, but it wasn’t long ago phrases endorsing some of the pandemic-related behaviours we’d adopted (and I don’t just mean good hygiene practices and mask-wearing) were doing the rounds.

I’m talking about changing work/life balance, and the layers that continue to emerge in that discussion.

It’s a tough one to tackle. One which tends to swing between extremes in my brain because of my own circumstances and work experience. At the weekend, an article canvassing the dire state of Auckland’s inner-city restaurants touched on the ongoing impacts of shifting work patterns among CBD workers. One frustrated restaurateur described the severity of the latest restrictions and the lack of targeted support for business.

“For most, level 3 is an inconvenience at worst, some even appear to enjoy the home time on full pay with no traffic or commuting,” she said. “For some of us, though, it is slowly but surely destroying our businesses and having a horrible effect on the lives of our staff, suppliers and families in the process.”

Unfortunately, it’s a perspective – not unique among affected business owners – that glazes over some of the best things I believe we’ve found during Covid.

A bit of background to qualify that. I’ve just rolled into year three of self-employment. A shift which came after a lot of reflection throughout 2018, and perhaps, rather naively, a conclusion that “I should just do what I want”. Fast forward two-and-a-bit years and that’s now a lovely sentiment to laugh at. Perhaps more importantly, and cemented through the pandemic experience, have been the unanticipated benefits that resulted.

Primarily, those boil down to the extra time I have because of greater flexibility around work. Without segueing into a full-blown explanation on quality of life, the absence of lengthy daily commutes and ability to work hours that suit me has made a significant difference. It’s not a statement I make lightly. I’m fortunate that my home and work is stable, and both those things function throughout Covid restrictions – albeit at different levels of sophistication depending on the day. Additionally, the nature of my work means I leave the house regularly, so I’m not usually confined to my home office for days on end.

Ultimately, the shift from conventional work practice resulted in improvement in other aspects of my life. Encouragingly, but perhaps less surprising in retrospect, were similar responses from other workers whose systems changed last year as we embraced work-from-home. A study that examined the psychological impact of the level 4 lockdown framed this as a “silver lining”. Of the 2010 adults it surveyed, about two-thirds said the lockdown was “conducive to more family time, work flexibility and to social cohesion”. It gave time to “pause, reflect, consider priorities, recreate healthy habits”. The environmental benefits from reduced travel were also identified as a positive.

Of course, that feedback is based on our most extreme and uncertain period of Covid. Since then, we’ve navigated several community outbreaks and enjoyed relative freedom in our interactions. But what of the niggly question on how we move forward with work conditions?

Indeed, the issues raised in the Weekend Herald article indicated some Auckland restaurateurs were waiting for a return to pre-Covid conditions. In Wellington last year, we also saw CBD outlets urge the Government to bring public sector workers back to the central city despite an indication many wanted to work from home for at least some of the week.

It seemed the silver lining for some simply did not work for others.

But adjusting to make the most of what we’ve learnt in the past year applies to more than just our public health response. Development of future work practices must encourage sustainable changes for workers where practical – even if that doesn’t present with tangible economic benefits for areas traditionally accustomed to doing well.

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