As I sit in my Westminster office I can look out at a Central London where many people have decided to work from home, fearing they cannot travel in easily to their usual place of work. It means I can get in and out of the centre much more easily than normal.
To many work is still defined by the old factory pattern of the industrial era. People still think a full time job entails attending a factory or office five days a week, and working around 8 hours there each day. The day starts at somewhere between 8 and 9.30 am. Shift working means doing the same at “anti social”hours, so you might need to start earlier or finish later than the typical 9-5. Remuneration patterns may still reflect this sense of “normal” hours and abnormal hours, with “compensation” for working outside the “working day”. Overtime is paid if you need to work more than the specified hours.
The truth now is far more complex for many of us. Highly automated factories need far less labour, but they often need to work the machines round the clock with a three shift pattern. There is no magic to the 9-5 period. Many service sector businesses need to provide service in the evenings and week-ends. It’s no use wanting to be a retailer but having an aversion to working on Saturdays, the biggest day of the trading week. It’s no good being in the aviation business if you want to be back home by 6pm every evening.
Many executives and professionals work far more than forty hours a week, but may do so “flexibly”, having some choice over where and when they get through the pile of work they have to do. My job as an MP is a good example of how work can be carried out at many times and in many places. I offer a reply service to emails and calls seven days a week, and regard myself as being on call at all times if there were to be a local disaster or serious problem. I work considerably more than forty hours, but do not sit down in my Westminster office five days a week between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm. I probably do most of the computer and email work from home, but do not have time or the wish to keep records of how long I spend each day doing it. Indeed, how do you account for time reading newspapers or watching the news? Is that relaxation, or part of the job? Is attending a local event work, if I go in an official capacity, and pleasure if I go of my own accord? The dividing line between work and lesiure breaks down in busy and interesting jobs. Do Directors and senior business executives hosting corporate hospitality boxes regard that as work or pleasure?
More and more people are now taking jobs which require this kind of flexibility. More and more jobs require professional standards and continuous training or striving for improvement. More jobs can now be carried out remotely, away from the office. More jobs have features which people enjoy and would wish to do anyway, as well as drudgery or unwelcome tasks which have to be done.
It is time to rethink what we mean by work, and to ask more questions about whether homeworking can become a way of raising productivity and relieving strains on the peak hour transport systems. There will always be those who think homeworking is skiving, and for some it can be another way of being unproductive. For others it can be a way of raising concentration levels, free from office distractions, and cutting out the wasted time of travelling to a segregated place of work. We need to concentrate more on getting the tasks done and the work performed, and less on the hours and place of work.