It’s a truism that things reveal their nature when they break. While systems and processes run smoothly, it’s easy to forget that a functioning society only works when individuals can come together as groups.
When a public transport system stops working, suddenly we are confronted with our individual bodily selves, relying on two feet to slowly walk or cycle to work, vulnerable to wind and rain and our need for shelter. With its call to ‘self isolation’, the current coronavirus outbreak is certainly shaking up the systems we have created to enable life and work.
Yet it has also revealed something about how well we are prepared. As technology has made enormous progress since the turn of the century to connect people at the individual level, the prospect for a working economy dispersed across the homes of millions of people looks promising.
Discussions and laws to encourage flexible working and home working have been a shadow-feature of our technological capacity to achieve it. With the outbreak, it looks like its time has truly arrived.
Not that home working is not without its risks. In Safety Management we have often covered stories about the health concern of an ‘always on’ culture that infinite connectivity can drive, of the dangers of isolation and loss of human contact with colleagues as conversation can be reduced to sharing information or forcing people to pay for co-working spaces as workers lack home offices.
It can also encourage presenteeism by making it too easy to work while sick. Deadlines don’t go away and, if you work from home, perhaps its relative novelty pushes us to prove that we are ‘at work and available’, fearing that one foot out of the office is the first step to being let go.
However, the virus is making us all consider how much we need to share our personal space and, if we can work from home, then it makes sense to do so.
In my experience, I would suggest the following to make it work for you and your colleagues. First, treat your day as a work day, set a start and end time and stick to it. Don’t work in the bedroom or leave work lying about, visible when you’re not working.
Secondly and crucially, by cutting out travel, make sure you are moving around enough. I suggest starting the day with a walk, the same for lunch. Try not to eat lunch at your desk. If you do this at work, now is the time to break the habit! Third, call colleagues rather than always rely on email.
At this time, that extra connection is particularly important for your wellbeing and it’s good for the business. Finally, embrace the change of routine. Too often we think about our work from within our organisation’s conventions and norms. Spending time away from our workplace, even from our colleagues, is an opportunity to refresh and look at challenges from a different perspective.
I also must make the point, obvious though it is, that not everyone can work from home. NHS staff, teachers, factory operatives, construction workers, farmers and many others cannot but be at their workplace to do their vital work.
Though changes to technology and our attitudes have paved the way to roll-out home working en masse, we must not forget those men and women who are on the frontline, working in very difficult circumstances. Other measures must be taken to protect their health and they deserve our heartfelt thanks.
Mike Robinson is chief executive of the British Safety Council
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