Spending hours in traffic is not the return many envisaged – or want

Economic realities may push refuseniks back to the office but attitudes are changing

Lockdown has led people to look on work as usual with a jaundiced eye. Photograph: iStock

Lockdown has led people to look on work as usual with a jaundiced eye. Photograph: iStock

 

“Surge in resignations as employees defy bosses on return to office” is a fairly startling headline. It appeared in The Irish Times earlier this month. Similar headlines have been seen from the United States.

This one was about Ireland. According to the McKinsey consulting company, a similar trend can be seen in Australia, Canada, Singapore and the United Kingdom, as well as the US.

Lockdown has led people to look on work as usual with a jaundiced eye. It is as though the question posed by the old song: “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” has been answered with: “The heck with Paree, its traffic, noise and stresses, I’m stayin’ down on the farm, on Zoom.”

Yet the road outside my home turns into a car park every afternoon, filled with bored-looking drivers making for the Dublin suburbs and the towns further on.

Will harsh economic realities push the refuseniks back into the rat race? After all, we have to pay for those huge mortgages, those SUVs, those expensive Christmas holidays.

But even if the refuseniks straggle sheepishly back to the office, a change in attitude seems to be under way. We just can’t see how long it will take to work itself out or what it will end up looking like.

When we look at the UK we see that shortages of low-paid workers can bring large swathes of an economy to a halt

How many of those bored drivers outside my home are not good soldiers marching to the corporate drum? What if they are sitting there wondering if this is worth it and if there is a better way to do things?

A lot depends on what people want and how they want to get it. For instance, if you have a strong need for a sense of belonging, whether you want to go to work or stay at home will depend on where you get that need met. For some it is at home, for some it is in the workplace and for some it is a mixture.

It might also depend on how strong your need for belonging is. If the belonging need is low, you might want to go to work to get away from the people you live with. Or you might want to stay at home to avoid the company of others at work.

If you’re big on achievement and power, you might want to be in the place of work so that you are up on the latest manoeuvres and opportunities.

If you are trying to organise a roster or a workplace, you might feel that figuring out these angles could leave you with no time to get things done. For that reason, you might go for the hybrid arrangement.

That will probably look like it has solved the issue of the reluctance to return.

But I wonder if what is going on is about more than working arrangements? If people are leaving their jobs and, perhaps, moving into work that more closely matches lifestyle desires such as not spending hours a day on motorways or trains, where does that leave us?

Leisure, hospitality and healthcare are among the sectors which people are interested in leaving, according to the McKinsey report. Large parts of these sectors are characterised by unsocial hours and low pay.

When we look at the UK we see that shortages of low-paid workers can bring large swathes of an economy to a halt.

What does this mean for us? A society in which we have to treat the people who do the really hard work differently?

I know I am making my points in a confused and unsatisfactory manner. Maybe that’s because the situation behind those headlines is confused and unsatisfactory.

Disruption has become a buzzword in recent years, happily invoked by self-obsessed wunderkinds of the technology industry as they set about upending what came before them.

Now we’ve all been disrupted – and I suspect it won’t end with the pandemic.

- Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email pomorain@yahoo.com

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