I don’t wish to downplay the substantial damage and loss caused by the Covid pandemic, but I don’t much wish to write about it either. Many have lost much – relatives, friends, livelihoods, homes, either through Covid itself or the systemic consequences of related restrictions. Let us, for this piece, simply acknowledge that.
As I sat yesterday, frustrated by the indecision of others, irritated by looming limitations, irked by the continuing inadequacy of ‘the science,’ and, to be frank, incensed by the inane politicking of all parties at both national and local levels, I decided to think about whether some good has come from this, to explore what we should celebrate!
Fortunate to have been working from home (wfh) since 1996, the limitation on travel had less negative impact on me than I know it has had on many others. But what have we gained? For commuters, even over quite short distances, wfh has surely saved both travel time and travel cost. The culture of ‘presenteeism’ so evident in many organisations, and prized so much by those who prefer to administer where people are rather than manage what they achieve, has begun to be tackled. The previous resistance of both employer and employee to the opportunities offered by online meeting technology was washed away almost overnight. As organisations start to think about their future, they can change the assumptions that they make about the nature and location of their staff, knowing that enabling technology will allow them to surmount the challenges. Employees can sleep longer, wake later, work longer and STILL have a better quality of life than when they were commuting. Meanwhile, for those many people whose work necessitates attendance at a workplace hopefully they have a less crowded, quicker, easier journey with a lower level of traffic and passenger numbers.
While one consequence of wfh is that our domestic energy bills may have seen an increase, this should be more than offset in most cases by the savings on commuting cost – including the daily double cream, pistachio nut laden, macchiatos – that may have also been beneficial to waistlines. Meanwhile, the bigger saving is planetary; the reduction in emissions from transport systems, whether directly or via oil and coal-based electricity generation has been immense and has at least reduced the rate at which human activity appears to be harming the environment. That surely is a good thing and should give us pause to consider how much of such a reduction might be sustained by permanently changing our thinking about the way we work and collaborate. While there are no doubt emissions and pollutants produced by the need to generate electricity to power the artefacts and infrastructure of the internet (and from all the wasteful plastic ppe that has been discarded), they must surely be less per head than those generated by a population of commuters, particularly in our towns and cities – where the air has been recorded as noticeably cleaner.
Nor does not travelling mean we cannot meet; it does mean we can rethink the way we do so. At a very small level, a group of fellow volunteers and I have taken to meeting every couple of weeks online instead of in person. While there is no doubt some loss of nuance and new people can join us only by invitation rather than lucky chance, we have managed to blend a planning and decision meeting with a ‘beer and nuts’ social in a way that would not have been done before. More formally, as a researcher and writer on management, I am often asked to present my ideas to students in the form of lectures – well, how tedious can that be (for them and me!), especially when on line and with limited immediate audience response? With Universities shifting to ‘online learning’ we have needed to come up with different approaches so have designed events that blend a bit of traditional chalk and talk with a portion of podcast and, where feasible, an element of workshop – including a virtual online workshop to embrace the international students who previously would not have had that experience. At a larger scale again the annual conference of the Cybernetics Society, of which I am current president, was held online. So what? It was held jointly with the American Society for Cybernetics, embraced speakers and attendees from both sides of the Atlantic and, if I remember rightly, south and central America, various European countries, Australia and New Zealand. In previous years that range of speakers and attendees would simply not have happened, neither the cost nor the time involved would have been feasible for most parties. The Society has also engaged in a series of online seminars and discussions which are attracting numbers of attendees that, again, would not be present if they were held in a physical location.
A frequent traveller throughout my working life, I have never spent so much time at home. For me that has meant much fewer long journeys and a significantly smaller expenses bill at the end of the month and most of the meetings and discussions I would have had have occurred anyway. I also finished writing my next book, The Intelligent Nation, that would have taken even longer without the enforced break. The impact on my personal life has been great. More time at home has provided additional opportunities to join in with the cooking and the washing up joined up with less hurried, less transactional and longer and better conversations. Life is no longer dominated by the travel schedule and the early starts! Contact with our older son and his wife was limited for quite a while to video calls, while our younger son came home for ‘a couple of weeks’ at the beginning of the lockdown and, for a variety of reasons, stayed longer than originally envisaged. What fun that was; 15 years after he went to university he was back in the house living with us. Neither he nor we will reveal all that we discovered about each other, we will just note that we all enjoyed it and would do it again without hesitation if it became necessary. We have also taken advantage of online meeting and chat technologies to maintain contact with a variety of relatives and friends as far away as Australia and the Philippines, yet as virtually close as the nearest screen.
If, as the government surely should, we take a long view of the impact of the pandemic, we can emphasise and amplify all the good things that can come from it while we must learn to manage the downside and the ongoing risks and challenges.
Let us all be Covid Positive!