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Opinion

Work isn’t working. It’s time for a reset

The pandemic gives us the chance to reset the system and put power back into the hands of employees, says Elizabeth Uviebinené

It’s maddening that it took a global health emergency of world-changing proportions to force a proper conversation about how we work. Suddenly that need for change had become incontrovertible, and understanding how we work and live was no longer on the fringes.

The pandemic revealed a capacity for change that individuals and businesses had massively underestimated. It accelerated changes that were already underway, embedded in transformation programmes that corporations had claimed would take years to be brought to reality, and while businesses had to rapidly adapt, so did we.

The problem was this ‘new way of working’ was riddled with the same problems and mindsets as before.

Millions of workers across the country before the pandemic were experiencing burnout, anxiety and depression. The number of self-employed was at an all-time high, driven by groups that included people living with disabilities, highly skilled women who had left the workplace and black people.

One of the biggest myths is that where we work defines us

These statistics flag the fact that these groups weren’t enjoying the traditional workspace. Some of the challenges we faced were only exacerbated by the pandemic. I’m an optimistic pessimist. You have to understand the exasperation to spark change, but you also have to have hope to see that there are loads of gains to be made during this time.

Obviously, what we have experienced during the last year is not a flexible working utopia by any means. But we’ve all been in this experiment where via Zoom we’ve been able to look through people’s keyholes and we were reminded that people are humans, not just a name on an email. Now, I feel like we’re more appreciative of each other. That’s a reason to be optimistic and to make sure that we don’t lose this level of connection.

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One of the biggest myths is that where we work defines us, that work is about the structures and the processes and the buildings. It’s not. Look what we saw in the pandemic – we got rid of the office, we had to come up with new processes.

Ultimately, what kept the company going? People. We underestimate the power of our voices and we underestimate the power of coming together.

We owe it to ourselves to reimagine a more sustainable and fulfilled life, but we also owe it to the next generation. My sister is doing her GCSEs. I remember one day I asked her how her studies were going and she said she was so burned out. I couldn’t believe she was using those words. She’s 15!

How did we get to a place where if we don’t feel constant pressure we feel like we must be doing something wrong?

Meaning and fulfilment come from contribution not consumption. We’re told every single day, the minute we leave our house or turn on the TV that we are not good enough, we don’t have enough money, we’re not pretty enough. We are always chasing things that we’re never going to be.

We have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redefine what is acceptable and what’s not

I’m under no illusion that there are people who are very much invested in things going back to being the same as they was before. We have to question who and why. There’s a study that showed that firms asking for people to come back into the office full-time tend to be dominated by white men. I think there’s something to be said about that. The battle for flexible working is not just about where you work, it’s a battle for equality for us as workers.

Companies and bosses are going to struggle if they expect everybody to go back to the way things were, because people have experienced something different now. Pandora’s box has been opened and it’s hard to shut.

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We have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redefine what is acceptable and what’s not. Choices are hard. And they’re not made easier by the systems we have around us. Change starts with the individual, but it doesn’t end there. Not everyone can demand change at work, but we can only create a cultural shift if we ask for choice and freedom where we can. If we assess our lives, work out the choices we need and ask for them. If it’s not possible, at least you asked, and at least you are part of the conversation. While it might not be vital to you, the changes you embrace might make a difference to someone else. This is everybody’s society and so it’s also everybody’s problem.

We were definitely overdue a reset, but in life you’re not really ready until pushed. If we reset how we understand work as individuals, we demand our businesses change. Once our businesses change, our communities change and our cities change. And if we have new communities, spread throughout the country, then everything changes.

Elizabeth Uviebinené is an author and FT columnist, co-author of Slay in your Lane; The Black Girl Bible. Her new book, The Reset, is out now (Hodder Studio, £16.99)

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