There is no denying that the current COVID-19 situation has caused a rapid, seismic shift in how we live our daily lives. For some this has been a huge challenge, for others less so. Now, over one month into the lock-down, people are starting to talk about a return to “normal”, whatever that is. But, do we want to return to the way things were? You see, it hasn’t been all bad. When I walk down the road for my daily exercise, I can’t help but think, I wish it were like this all the time. There’s less traffic on the roads. I can hear the birds and the wind in the trees rather than the constant hum of traffic. I can smell the spring blossom on the air instead pollution. I see couples and families, happily enjoying time together, walking or cycling. Everything seems slower, less hectic and somehow happier. The shops are no longer open late but nobody seems to mind. We patiently wait in line because we’re all on this together, we’re not in a rush, we have all the time in the world.
Now, before I go further, I know some elements of the COVID-19 response are hard, particularly on those in inner cities and for those who live in flats and tower blocks. However, many of the changes we have seen are positive. People are less obsessed with the material. Local businesses are thriving with many people choosing to shop local. Businesses, restaurants and takeaways have stepped up, offering products and services they never thought of and delivering them to your door. The big fast food restaurants are closed and nobody seems sad to see them go. People are working from home and realising that you don’t need to be in the same place to work effectively.
I have been a long-term advocate of home-working. In fact, some might class me an expert in it and the technology that makes it possible. You see, I have a complex family. I have children affected by disability and I’m currently unable to go to work in an office. Back when I did work in an office, I worked closely with diverse global teams that I never met in person. Most of the desire to be in the same office is centred around old fashioned views that you need to be in a room together to work together, or that people won’t actually work at home. However, nothing is farther from the truth.
Homeworking means a better work-life balance. It means we can better respond to the needs of our families and employers. We can be flexible on hours, which is of huge benefit to businesses, particularly those who do business across time zones. Because we don’t have to commute, we get more time with our family. Quite often people who work at home work more hours than the equivalent employee in the office and still get more quality time with their family and lower stress levels. Employers’ insistence on people being present in an office is discriminatory. It means that many skilled people, who have a disability or care for somebody who has or who have young children, cannot work. Home working levels the playing field. Commuting and being out of the house for long hours has an impact on relationships, our physical and our mental health. All of this puts a burden on the NHS and the benefits and social care systems which could be avoided. Home working is better for the environment. If we take all of those commuters off the roads, off the trains and have them at home for at least a percentage of the time, our environment, locally and globally benefits. When we add COVID-19 or other pathogens into the mix, we see that the simple act of commuting and being in an office greatly increases our risk of exposure, not just during this pandemic but any future events too. This risk is bad for business. Right now, people planning for business continuity should be thinking about how we ensure that the workforce isn’t taken out of action en-masse by a pandemic. Home working is the obvious answer. This comes with the bonus of decreased office space requirements and overheads for premises etc.
Talking of businesses, what about corporate responsibility. If your employer insists you come to an office to do a job you could do at home and you become ill as a result they could be (and probably should be) held liable for this in the same way as with any other workplace injury. Employers have a duty of care to their staff and homeworking is an obvious mitigating action.
On realising all of this, the government has a responsibility too. Government should take actions to incentivise companies to support home working. COVID-19 has begun the culture shift, somebody needs to help drive it forward.
Of course, not everyone can work from home. However, if you can’t do your job from home, employers should have robust plans around managing exposure to pathogens in the same way as other health and safety risks are mitigated. The basic premise that individuals should be able to choose to take a a risk, not be required to should be upheld. If you choose to go out and socialise, that’s your prerogative. If your employer tells you to go somewhere, they should take responsibility for you and your family’s well-being from the second you leave your home. People in jobs where they are considered at risk should be able to resign at any point to avoid this risk without being penalised by the employer or the benefits system. If you do become unwell, you should be entitled to full pay for the duration of the illness, including any time spent self-isolating or caring for other family members.
The simple act of limiting potential exposure to just things we choose to do, like shopping or seeing friends, removes most of our weekly exposure. It takes many hours of contact with potentially hundreds of other people out of the equation. This is the most important part of social distancing. It’s not staying 2 metres apart, it’s not wearing a mask, it’s simply not commuting, not working in an office every day, making less visits to the supermarket. This is the uncomfortable truth the government is skirting around. The only measures that really makes a difference are the number of people you share an enclosed environment with and the number of hours you are exposed to this risk. The biggest risk of catching COVID-19 are touch-points, like door handles, pin machines and train doors and furniture, not how close you stand to somebody. Conversely, somebody cycling past your drive or a family sitting on the beach together don’t pose a significant risk to anybody. We, as a society have chosen to focus on the least important pieces of guidance and to treat them as the most important and the government has done little to correct this. It is a dangerous practice and it gives the public a misplaced sense of security coupled with an over-developed sense of self-righteousness that doesn’t follow the science. The media has been complicit in this, giving a voice to untrained opinion and hearsay.
So, do we want things to go back to normal? I say no, we want a new, better normal. Better for our physical and mental health, better for our families, better for our community, better for our employers, better for our country and better for our planet. Don’t accept the old normal, lets do better.