Back to ‘normal’ or back to the drawing board?

Covid-19 has prompted wider questions about how we organise work and society. Is it time for a rethink amid all the urgent economic issues and uncertainty?

Light Bulb Moment, Ideas and Innovation


Covid-19 is prompting many questions about the nature of our societies – about inequality, individualism, how we support – or don’t – the most vulnerable, about the need for a positive, shared vision amid division and breakdown, about leadership and about how we organise our economies so that they are more resilient to the kind of sudden upheavals we are likely to see more of in the future.

It’s virtually impossible to get a full picture of what is happening around the UK because the impact of Covid is so varied and much of the reporting of it takes a particular slant. There is very little, for instance, on the ongoing struggles of the many people who haven’t had access to government support or who have been forced onto universal credit and are having to use food banks because there are hundreds of applicants for every job.

In contrast, there is a lot on the back to the workplace issue. Every day there are reports on who is going back, who isn’t, how they are going back – some are going back on alternate weeks; some are banning the use of public transport; some are offering employees financial incentives to return etc etc – what the economic impact might be and so forth.

Understandably, there is great concern about those businesses that are losing money because of a reduced footfall in major cities. A Pwc report earlier this week estimated the economic hit and said it was greater than the potential benefit to local areas. Some have argued that the money would just be redistributed elsewhere. Interestingly, a survey just out shows that a large number of those still in employment have been better off since lockdown because they are not spending as much on things like sandwiches, going out and commuting. The survey commissioned by Eskenzi PR found that almost 90% of those employed in the financial sector reported savings.

Similarly, those in IT, Legal, HR and Education also managed to increase their savings during the months of lockdown. Even some key workers were able to save, despite still having to commute to work, for instance, 65% of retail workers, builders and manual labourers reported being better off financially since March 2020.  That’s a powerful incentive for working from home in addition to the time saved commuting, but clearly it doesn’t help transport or city centre cafe and retail businesses. Yet people may need those savings in the near future as furlough comes to an end and Brexit approaches, with food and other prices likely to rise significantly.

Moreover, with infection rates going up, guidance changing and fears of a second wave, it seems the wrong time to be pushing everyone back to the office, despite the economic urgency for some. Is there another way? Could more targeted support be given to those businesses affected to rebuild their business models, based on the likelihood of long-term changes in the workforce, particularly more hybrid working? Should we not be preparing for change rather than clinging on to Plan A – the before Covid scenario that wasn’t working for many people?

Another issue with all the economic forecasts is the question of what is left out – because such calculations surely depend on what you measure and what is measurable. Could the prospect of more people being in their local neighbourhood be used in a positive way post-Covid to rebuild local communities and bridge divisions? Could there be more imaginative thinking about how we organise our society better – and invest in/incentivise the kind of jobs that help to build that – to ensure whole parts of it don’t get left behind as they have been in the past? How do you put a monetary value on time not spent working or well being? Shouldn’t we at least be putting more effort into thinking about these things?

It’s easy, though, to say search for the silver linings in any bad situation. Clearly some things that happen in life are just awful. There is nothing good about losing someone you love, for instance. It is always a loss no matter how much you try to focus on celebrating the life that person had. Yet we have to go on and, after all this suffering and change, we have to find ways to come together, on a micro as well as a macro scale, and to help each other rather than rush back to the overly busy lives many of us had before.

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