So you tell me… just how does this genie go back in the bottle?
As with so much post-pandemic reality, there has been a work-life paradigm shift which cannot be undone overnight. If ever.
So here come my streams of consciousness on this new work-from-home era.
(You must know the acronym is WFH by now, right? Good. You’ll just have to look up WTF now, grandma!)
My viewpoint, in short, is all those emails starting to hint (insist?) on an imminent return to office after a protracted WFH period are, at best, wildly optimistic.
At worst, they are the precursor to a lawyer feeding frenzy.
For historical context, circa January 2019 UK was just a different universe to April 2022.
It was a time when – in terms of company/employee household relationships – mi casa was certainly not tu casa.
The boundary between people’s spare rooms and a business’ operational objectives was clearly defined – practically, financially and psychologically.
Your child did not give a tiny shit you needed him to keep the noise down, or that you had to dominate the wifi so that a shareholder can earn a few more beans.
Your other half did not care that your unfairly put-upon middle manager could not organise your WFH schedule in a way that did not ruin a home which used to be your family’s sanctuary.
That said, your cat loved the new chance to climb on your keyboard so… you know… swings and roundabouts.
But you made it work. It did not happen overnight, but after lots of personal investment in a home office, combined with a major lifestyle overhaul, you built a new and settled working routine.
And you are in no mood to mothball it all because of the latest prevailing hot air blowing in from the pandemic-busting geniuses at Whitehall.
Let’s try and illustrate it with a made-up character. We’ll call her Betty.
Her work was always in London. She does one of those exceedingly boring finance industry jobs. Don’t get me wrong – Betty is not boring. She’s a real firecracker on the weekend.
Anyway, Betty used to have her train season ticket, knew how to luncheon economically, and had a work schedule which dovetailed just fine with her domestic life.
And she used to be able to go on holiday once a year without too much aggravation so that she could remind herself why she stares at derivatives on a screen all the live-long day!
Scroll forward to this spring, and Betty is still emerging from the PTSD created by the new breeze-block free tumble dryer world we live in.
Her wages have sat on the platform while the cost-of-living train raced away into the distance.
The retreat that was once only her home has been smashed into one of her corporation’s many new commandeered satellite offices.
Her kids are a bit older and way more challenging. Her husband’s work keeps pissing everyone off and he’s an even grumpier bastard than before.
It’s like a warm hug every day.
But Betty and her brood are coping. Just. They’ve found a way to make it all work.
So why should she be expected to return to the office at the drop of a hat (or mask)?
Facing her is a commute that is a completely different prospect to the one she had three years ago.
Last month, train fares saw their biggest rise in nine years. And I don’t know if you heard but petrol is a bit more expensive now.
So jumping on the newly over-priced Covid-comet into London, or embarking on a 12mpg, easy-on-the-air-con round-trip car journey into the capital, are not exactly inviting take-home-salary-sapping options this summer.
Never mind, Betty can cheer herself up with some daylight-robbery meal deal from a ubiquitous fast-food outlet served up by a (understandably) nihilistic millennial at lunchtime.
Look, I am not saying the question of what comes next is an easy one to answer.
It feels like the government has given everyone a shitty stick to hold and does not intend to take it back anytime soon.
I really do have just as much sympathy for the companies scrambling to reimagine themselves as any individual employee.
I am sure some will read this and think Betty should just suck it up and get back on that train.
I’d love to hear from anyone who thinks that, and intrigued to know why you think that. (Go on, I won’t tell your boss you had an opinion, I pinky swear it.)
And, of course, there simply must be far-reaching WFH implications for things like capital gains tax, business rates, expenses and various tax reliefs.
I’m not going to pretend I know my stuff on that. If you do, I’d be thrilled to hear your insight.
And surely work contracts which were in place three years ago are now, at best, outdated, but more likely just plain nonsensical. How can they not need to be rewritten on a wholesale basis?
Personally, I have worked for many moons in what we have now seen labelled a hybrid scenario, and I’m happy to continue to do that and navigate those often-challenging waters as a professional freelancer.
Bully for me.
But if you are one of the majority – that is to say clock-punching employees – for whom some of the things I’ve written here ring true, then I’d like to wish you the very best of luck going forward.
Because all of these issues, and many more besides, will be central to the debate in the coming years.
The cat will soon be well and truly out of the bag – and probably curled up on your keyboard for some time to come.