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The Future of Work | Working the Future
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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking


2020-07-27 13:00

Cathryn Barnard



It’s never been more important to switch off. We’ve undoubtedly many more challenging months ahead. This is the mental and emotional marathon of our lives...


One of my favourite childhood TV programmes was Why Don’t You? It was fab – packed full of suggestions and ideas for interesting stuff for kids to do. 


There was a lot of boredom in the ‘70s. We didn’t have the luxury of the internet or 24/7 TV, with their endless channels, ‘on-demand’ shows, and websites to choose from. In the long hours between programme broadcasts, ‘70s kids had, quite simply, to go and make their own fun. 


I’ve been thinking about that programme quite a bit this summer. 


While UK lockdown may have ended, going out has become fraught with hassle. And bluntly, too few of my preferred leisure activities are available. 


There’s no live music, and the cinemas and theatres have struggled to apply social distancing measures. And when the doors do eventually open, it’s hard to imagine how we’ll experience these things. Being shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, actively participating as part of an audience, is arguably much of the overall sensory experience.


Elsewhere, many pubs and restaurants have stayed shut – presumably, unable to figure out how to make their spaces physically safe. Those that have opened are half empty – despite Government effort, it’s clear there’s simply too much public anxiety over safety and finances for many people to want to return to ‘normal’ any time soon.


Coronavirus has massively impacted leisure time. As social creatures, we’re hardwired for togetherness.


I read recently that remote working has led to longer working days – up by between 10-20% since the pandemic took hold. Presenteeism is fast becoming a worrisome issue, driven, I imagine, by increased anxiety over job security, as well as by workers doing whatever they can to visibly demonstrate ‘value’. 


Working from home also blurs the boundaries between work and home life. This is not without its challenges, of course. However unstable the economy becomes, being able to mentally separate work from home is essential for good emotional health. 


Psychologists already anticipate a mental health tsunami arising from COVID-19, lockdown, and social distancing. Restricted access to fresh air and sunshine, social isolation, uncertainty, the end of ‘normal’, job precarity – these all negatively impact on wellbeing and exacerbate long-term anxiety.


Overworking and blurred work / life boundaries will fan the flames of this crisis further.


Even though we’re now in peak holiday season, this year doesn’t feel very holiday-ish. For many, the perceived risks of travelling outweigh any benefits – travel advice seemingly changes by the hour, and each day we see new data showing the relentless spread of infection.


There's a 'but'


… It’s never been more important to try and switch off. We’ve undoubtedly many more challenging months ahead. This is the mental and emotional marathon of our lives, and we’re still only a few metaphorical miles in. 


However you spend this summer, whether you travel or staycation, take time to idle. Take deliberate time away from the distraction of endless newsfeeds and social status updates. 


How we structure our lives and our work has had to change dramatically in just four short months. Post-pandemic life (whenever that will be) will inevitably look very different again. 


Continuous change and uncertainty are mentally exhausting. 


Our brains are wired to find shortcuts wherever possible – to automate all the ‘knowns’, so that we can do as much as possible without conscious effort. Trouble is, there are now so many ‘unknowns’, our mental energy is continuously challenged. None of us should underestimate this pandemic’s impact on our emotional wellbeing. It’s never been more essential to practice ‘self-care’. 


Another reason to idle has to do with the inexorable march of technology. As we hurtle towards widespread workplace automation, it’s human creativity that will keep us employable. Creativity includes the ability to solve complex problems and to think critically. 


But creativity requires mental downtime – as anyone who ever had a lightbulb moment in the shower will attest. Making time to daydream allows us to make new mental connections; it’s when we have our most creative breakthroughs. Daydreaming is also hugely restorative – the perfect antidote for times of stress.


Digital transformation will inevitably lead to more fluid ways of working. Right now, we’re still conditioned by the construct of a standardised 40-hour workweek. Dolly and Sheena both sang about the nine-to-five, so engrained is it in our psyche!


And yet, the World Economic Forum already predicts that by 2030, up to 50% of the US workforce will be freelance. Traditionally, where the US breaks the trend, the rest of the world follows. 


We anticipate that one significant outcome from COVID-19’s economic disruption will be a major change to the amount of time we spend working. 

Our psychological relationship with work urgently needs redefining. We need to ‘unlearn’ many of the ingrained beliefs we hold about employment.


Last year, I read Business for Bohemians by Tom Hodgkinson. He’s the founder of The Idler magazine. As a firm advocate for a calmer, more relaxed life, The Idler’s manifesto reads:


"The religion of industry has turned human beings into work robots. The imposition of work-discipline on free-wheeling dreamers enslaves us all…"


It concludes:


"Inaction is the wellspring of creation."


While there’s no doubt the financial and economic impact of COVID-19 will be seismic, by starting to contemplate a new relationship with work, we’ll make huge and progressive steps towards our ‘next normal’.


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Looking to dive deeper into some of the areas covered in this blog post? Check out our Foresight Focus products.

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