Three trends that will shape our working lives in 2021
As technology makes us more productive, our workdays will get shorter. Eventually, we can expect a 15-hour week.
At least, that’s what John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist, predicted in 1930… so far, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
Not only did the 15-hour week not materialise, we also started spending more time away from home thanks to the daily commute. We often forget that living in the suburbs and commuting to the city to work is a relatively recent invention.
2020 took us back to the days before the Industrial Revolution when the vast majority of people worked from home or very close to home. The new normal is actually a very old normal.
At the start of 2020, only 6% of workers in the UK worked remotely full time. 2020 was about coping with change; 2021 will be about taking a long hard look at the changed face of work, and asking ourselves whether we like what we see – and what we’re going to do about it.
These are the three trends that will characterise working life in 2021:
Silicon Valley giants like Apple, Google and Twitter were some of the first to introduce home working when COVID struck. They already had experience of the concept and a fancy name for it: distributed working. You’ll be hearing “distributed working” and “hybrid working” a lot in 2021.
However, those who weren’t so experienced were in for a rude shock: working from home takes serious discipline. Some even found themselves craving a return to the office for the structure it gave them.
So you’ll also be hearing a lot about disciplined routines in 2021. People will be looking to create their own office-like routines, not only to get themselves to start working, but also to get themselves to stop.
The hidden upside of commuting
This brings us to our next point. Many remote workers, having seen colleagues made redundant, took to overworking out of survivors’ guilt, gratitude to still have jobs, and desperation to make sure that continued.
With no obvious end to the workday, many people’s workdays no longer end. Work stops at bedtime – or later. This may seem like heroic discipline, but it’s not; more and more workers are realising that it’s the fast track to burnout.
People who were initially delighted to have “escaped the commute” have now started creating their own mini-commutes; when lockdown prevents the usual expedient of working at a coffee shop, some have taken to going for little walks before and after work, only to arrive back at their home office.
The point is the demarcation line: a boundary between work and life. In 2021, work-life balance will not only be a hot topic, it’ll be a public health issue, with policymakers being urged to take action.
The right to disconnect
Even before COVID, increasing connectivity was leading to dire warnings about 24/7 work culture. As far back as 2016, French workers won the right to disconnect from their work emails outside working hours.
While British workers may lack the legendary protesting skills of the French, workplace activism has been increasing here. That trend will hopefully continue in 2021, which might push companies and governments into revealing their remote working policies. The majority of companies still haven’t, which makes it impossible for remote workers to plan their future.
David Graeber, the late activist, described our failure to fulfil Keynes’s dream of the 15-hour work week as “a scar across our collective soul”. COVID-19 might just reopen that conversation – but only if we’re willing to fight for it.