After the lockdown, it is now clear to many that “work” has been conceptualised and operationalised in a way that excludes many people and causes avoidable stress. So how do we deconstruct those ideas? asks Jess Berentson-Shaw

This week public servants in Wellington were chastised and then begged to return to work in the central city due to the financial perils experienced by small businesses. In one article the head of Business NZ appeared to be indicating that without the coffee addictions of public servants the Wellington economy would fall apart. That’s quite the niche version of “private profits are the public service’s responsibility”.

It’s a pretty staid story: regardless of the wider public benefits (or costs) people in government should persist with upholding current systems and practices to ensure short term financial benefits for some.

The more interesting and future focused story in a Covid-19 world is the enormous public value (value in the more expansive meaning of it) that comes from a shift in how and where we do our paid work to be more in line with what people really value.  Now is the time for people in business and government, all of us, to explore these stories in depth.

Opening a window to a less frantic way of living

Covid-19 has thrown open many windows of possibilities, showing how the world we have shaped can be shaped differently should people decide. One area where change has happened on a significant scale for many is how we do our paid work. For those not in essential work, working away from the office gave us some insight as to what it felt like when one thing that matters (paid work) is in greater harmony with other things that matter to us in life.

… lifting the stress people experience when paid work and unpaid work comes into conflict, are some of the greatest investments people in business and in governments can make.

In our family, while schooling the kids was pretty challenging (bless you teaching profession), there were real benefits in terms of the time we got to spend with the children and what we were able to get done in the rest of our busy life (the boring but essential work of washing, cooking, and keeping the family cared for). All while continuing to be productive in our paid work. The time saved, the stress removed from commuting, rushing between meetings, picking up kids, being stuck in traffic, could be put to use on family walks or bike rides. And once the kids were back at school, the dreaded anxiety of kids being sick on a work day was removed as we knew we could meet their needs while doing work from home. Giving caregivers more time with children, lifting the stress people experience when paid work and unpaid work comes into conflict, are some of the greatest investments people in business and in governments can make. Research has shown it improves multiple outcomes for children, adults and all of us benefit. Pretty solid work for our economic recovery.

Working away from one office is also a more inclusive way of constructing our workplaces. For many people who cannot physically be present at work all the time, due to a disability, a health issue, or a caring responsibility, much more flexibility in where work happens equalises the workplace, making it more diverse and bringing in new ways of knowing to our workplaces. When we are all on Zoom no one is excluded as the person who isn’t physically present.

I suspect there is a lot of research to be done to help reveal the best ways to organise ‘work’ for meeting the different needs and outcomes that matter to different people in society. But when we think differently about work, the types of questions and outcomes we are interested in become expansive and inclusive, including thinking about long term collective value as an important outcome.

The public value of flexible work

Covid-19 shows that how we have conceptualised and operationalised “work” excludes many people, and isn’t really how many of us want to live. It has shown that if we deconstruct those ideas and the systems built around those ideas, we can co-create public value.

What this small revolution in working shows is that when we look at what we really value as a community, what makes a good life for more people, we can shift the systems and structures we have and support better ways of living and working

Reduced car commuting into cities means less rampant carbon from our economic activities, fewer pedestrian injuries, less air pollution and a likely revival of suburban communities. While these things may not be currently measured in our official economy, they have measurable public value. And they have more value to the collective than clinging to the old system in order to keep some central city businesses going. We should absolutely care about the people involved in those businesses, and there are better ways to help them while helping all of us.

How to care for people as we transition to better work systems

In opening our eyes to new ways of constructing our workplaces, we can also think about how to care for those who will feel the worst financial impacts of any shift. Support them to transition to other work, or locate to other areas for example. It requires future oriented thinking, and experimentation. It also means having a much better understanding from people in government about what the community really values and how to shape that in partnership with the business community.

The process of structural transition is something we all need to become practiced as we face the existing crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and inequality. It’s especially important that those with the means to affect change take their responsibility to lead such transitions in the right way seriously.

What this small revolution in working shows is that when we look at what we really value as a community, what makes a good life for more people, we can shift the systems and structures we have and support better ways of living and working. And that has real value to us all.

Jess is the co-director of the Wellington think-tank The Workshop, and a Research Associate at the Public Policy Institute.

Originally published in newsroom. Republished with permission.

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