On October 19, 1957, at the cliff edge of Govetts Leap in the NSW Blue Mountains, one of the world’s most famous archaeologists disappeared. Vere Gordon Childe, 65, was the just-retired director of the University of London’s Institute of Archaeology, and arguably the founder of modern archaeology. He was so famous that a generation later, the action hero Indiana Jones was partly modelled on Childe’s round-spectacled, bow-tied, tweed-waistcoated persona.
When he failed to return from his walk that day, the alarm was raised, and a search quickly revealed his glasses, pipe, compass and hat gathered in a tidy pile near the edge of the cliff. His body was found soon afterwards, 150 metres down. As author James Suzman writes in his new book Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, the coroner swiftly ruled his death a tragic accident: the short-sighted professor had taken off his glasses, lost his footing and fallen.
This verdict was wrong. On the morning of his death, Childe had written and posted a letter to his successor at the institute, Professor William Grimes, including a covering note asking him not to open the contents for a decade.
The letter was eventually published in 1980. In it, Childe calmly described his plan to end his own life. “The British prejudice against suicide is utterly irrational,” he wrote. “To end his life deliberately is in fact something that distinguishes Homo sapiens from other animals … An accident may easily and naturally befall me on a mountain cliff. Life ends best when one is happy and strong.”
His reason for dying was simple. As one grows older, he wrote, useful work becomes impossible, and without work, life is meaningless. Those who can’t work, in fact, are simply “a horde of parasites” that should be disposed of. “I have always considered that a sane society would disembarrass itself of such parasites by offering euthanasia as a crowning honour, or even imposing it in bad cases,” he explained.
Before he died, Childe was reportedly concerned about his health; his finances were precarious; he had no partner or family. But, as his own words tell us, central to everything was his certainty that his life was pointless without work.
“For myself I don’t believe I can make further useful contributions to prehistory,” he explained. “I am beginning to forget what I laboriously learned … New ideas very rarely come my way. I see no prospect of settling the problems that interest me most … [and] I have no wish to hang on the fringe of learned societies or university institutions … I have always intended to cease living before that happens.”
From a distance, such a solution seems outrageous. But up close, it makes you wonder. How many of us live as if we believe what Childe did: that our life revolves around work; that our jobs are the most important things about us; that what we do is integral to who we are? How many of us, in fact, behave as if we believe that without work, life is not worth living?
There is, of course, an alternative to this view. These days referred to by the (admittedly annoying) phrase “work/life balance”, this is the idea that we should all find some ideal middle ground between what we do for a living, and actual living. It originates from the ideas of famous developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson.
In the 1950s, Erikson began developing a theory that we face a tension between work and “life” that, unless resolved, leads to conflict, stress, and – a phrase he coined – “identity crisis”. “The richest and fullest lives,” Erikson wrote, “attempt to achieve an inner balance between three realms: work, love and play”.
Almost a century later, Western societies are still struggling to find this balance. In capitalist systems, there’s an almost universal assumption that work equals money equals happiness. The inference? The more you work, the happier you’ll be.
Work to live, or live to work? That is the question.
Of course, most of us know by bitter personal experience that this isn’t true. But the system has an answer to this, too. If we’re not happy expending the best of ourselves – time, attention, creativity – on work, it’s our own fault, because we simply haven’t found a profession we feel passionate about. If we had, we’d be happy to work 12-hour days and take work home and give up holidays. All of which, it turns out, we’re already doing.
Until recently, many Australians were working harder than ever. A survey in 2018 of more than 11,000 respondents in 19 countries revealed that Australians had the third worst result in the world for taking available annual leave (behind only Japan and Italy), and that the number of our unused holidays had almost doubled in the previous decade, from three and a half to six days per year.
In 2019, a separate report calculated that Australians had accrued 146 million days of annual leave, or just over 16 days for every full-time worker.
Not only are we not taking holidays; we’re in the office till all hours. Only last year, the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute reported that Australians work an average of six weeks’ unpaid overtime a year. According to the OECD Better Life Index, this puts us in the bottom quarter (31st of 40) of countries for work-life balance.
Australians like to think we know how to switch off: how to relax and enjoy life and – as our ur-Australian cliché Paul Hogan once put it – throw another shrimp on the barbie. But what these statistics tell us is that we’re obsessed with work. Whatever we might like to believe, as a nation, we’ve become much more Vere Gordon Childe than Crocodile Dundee.
And then came the coronavirus.
David and Michelle Slack-Smith know very well that work is not life. But until March this year, the problem was proving it. As a senior executive at health insurance company NIB, with teams and clients all over the country, 46-year-old David spent more time travelling than he did at home in Sydney’s Lilyfield; and Michelle, 44, had her own role as NSW head of talent management with travel giant Flight Centre. The couple have two primary school-aged daughters.
“Life was just crazy,” recalls David. “We’d be turning up at daycare before it opened every day; going off to get a coffee while we waited for the staff to arrive.”
“We had a lot of near misses,” agrees Michelle. “School pick-up and both of us in the air; one of the girls getting chickenpox and I’m in Brisbane, David’s in Melbourne.”
But pre-COVID-19, the options for more flexible working were limited. “My boss was fantastic,” Michelle recalls, “and the company, too. They let me create a job share; they bent over backwards for me. But there was still a bravado about office culture: being there, working late. If I left at 4pm in my running gear because that was the fastest way home, a few people would look at me like, ‘What’s she doing?’ And I was like, ‘Actually, stuff you! I’ve been here 20 years; I don’t need to sit here till 9pm to prove myself.’ I mean, we were running a diversity and inclusion program! But if you’re a mum, training for a marathon, needing to work from home for a few hours, forget it. No inclusion for you!”
This kind of workplace culture is by no means unique to Flight Centre, which as Michelle points out did its best to give her options within the traditional office framework, even as equally traditional office culture took its toll. Another constraint – also common to big corporations – was the fact that for her career to progress, Michelle would ultimately need to move to the company HQ, in this case in Brisbane. This was untenable, so in the end Michelle left and set up her own travel business – working from home with hours she could set herself.
But life was still far from ideal. As country kids themselves, the Slack-Smiths had always dreamt of moving to the country, “but we just could not figure out how to make it happen,” says David. “We’re not farmers; our careers are in the city. Even after Michelle left work – especially then! – we needed my income. So you just go on doing the same old thing, because there’s really nothing else to do.”
Then came the global pandemic. And that, as Michelle puts it, “stopped everything in its tracks”.
Since the world ground to a coronavirus halt, something unexpected has happened to work. For arguably the first time since the Industrial Revolution, people are being forced to rethink the way it operates, and the role it plays in our lives. Of course, having a job matters – more than ever as economies collapse – but how fundamentally important are KPIs when people are losing their jobs regardless of performance?; how important is schmoozing your boss when your loved ones’ lives are in danger? And – on a different, but for many people more immediate level – how important is the office when you’re suddenly asked to do your job from home and realise that you can?
Until March of this year, only around 5 per cent of Australians worked from home every day. But when the pandemic began, close to half of workers in Sydney (40 per cent) and more than a third in Melbourne (39 per cent) suddenly found themselves doing exactly that. The numbers are smaller in regional areas, but even so, when surveyed in June, one-third of working Australians were toiling away from home.
In the beginning, this seemed like just a momentary disruption of our daily commuter lives. “I think people found it quite exciting and novel,” says Anastasia Panayotidis, general manager of clinical services at Relationships Australia Victoria. “Most people leaned into it: I think they were grateful to still have their jobs, to be able to look after kids and family. And of course, we’re all conscious of doctors and teachers and delivery people and grocery store workers, who were making life possible for the rest of us. Not to mention the people who’ve lost their jobs. In that context, working from home felt lucky; even liberating in a way: you were still working, and you were safe. And it wasn’t going to last forever.”
But now, perhaps, it might. “If we’d just had the first lockdown, and then the bounce back to normal working patterns, then it might not have had any long-lasting effects,” says associate professor Anya Johnson, deputy head of discipline in work and organisational studies at the University of Sydney Business School. “But, in fact, the disruption is big enough that I think it will change culture: it will re-craft what work means, and how we work.”
Companies such as Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Optus and Westpac have all said they plan to make some version of working from home an ongoing feature of employee life. As Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey put it, he’s happy for his employees to keep working from home “forever”. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has also declared that remote working will let his companies access greater diversity of talent by hiring outside the major cities. Less expansively, he’s admitted that future remuneration may be tied to people’s locations – if you live in Idaho, don’t expect a Silicon Valley salary.
Remote working might also improve productivity and staff retention. A 2019 Harvard Business Review study of US Patent Office workers found their output increased by 4.4 per cent when they worked from home, with no significant decrease in quality, and a Stanford study of 16,000 Chinese travel company employees found remote working improved job satisfaction and halved attrition rates.
“I’m on this call, but when I hang up, I can open that door and my family’s there.”
Increased productivity, wage savings, lower corporate rents: working from home could provide enormous benefits for business. But significant numbers of workers – perhaps more than 80 per cent – are also enjoying working from home, and want to keep doing so in some fashion. They’re enjoying the lack of commute, the flexibility of working hours, the savings that come from no transport, food or incidental costs, and more time with their families.
“There’s been an opportunity for a lot of people – especially men – to say, ‘What have I been missing out on? What can I contribute?’ ” says Elisabeth Shaw, a clinical and counselling psychologist, executive coach and senior consultant with the Ethics Centre in Sydney. “I was having a Zoom meeting with several very senior executives recently, and one man said that for the first time in 20 years he felt really present in his household. As he put it, ‘I’m on this call, but when I hang up, I can open that door and my family’s there.’ ”
At best, a more permanent version of working from home might allow an entire generation to re-frame the way we value work, and how we prioritise it – away from the Vere Gordon Childe model and towards something in which families and meaningful relationships can be given time and space; in which hobbies and passions can be incorporated into daily life; in which, at the very least, we don’t have to fight our way through the daily commute and the nightmare boss and the painful colleague and the awful office cafe every day of our lives. At last, we might finally achieve that elusive work/life balance, and make Erik Erikson proud.
But not so fast, Mr Dundee.
While companies may be more than ready to embrace working from home, there are challenges to the vision of a remote working paradise. And – surprise, surprise – it’s employees who’ll deal with most of them. “Working from home has many advantages,” says associate professor Johnson. “But before we leap into the brave new work world, it can be helpful to bear in mind what we’re giving up.”
First and most obvious is the social interaction and friendship the classic office provides. Traditional work environments are full of “low effort, high convenience opportunities to socialise”, writes Annie McKee, the author of How to Be Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope and Friendship.
Especially for people whose jobs are not always intrinsically thrilling, having other people nearby who can feel your pain, help you blow off steam, or make you laugh is important. Work friendships and social bonds are powerful predictors of workplace engagement and performance; they also impact life outside work. Indeed, historically at least, some 20 per cent of people (including the writer of this article) meet their spouses at work.
On a broader level, work relationships can be an antidote to poor mental health. In a global study of 2000 employees in seven countries, including Australia, in March and April of this year, 75 per cent of respondents felt more socially isolated since COVID-19 and remote working, and more than 40 per cent said their mental health had declined.
Of course, these impacts were the result of lockdown restrictions and loss of employment as well as remote working, but employees also reported greater levels of emotional exhaustion, increased sadness, anger, irritability and guilt, and increased insomnia while working from home – all indicative of mental health challenges – and, in addition, 67 per cent said they felt more stressed, while 57 per cent felt increased anxiety. (For people home-schooling children for the first time, anxiety rose to a whopping 76 per cent.) Almost the only bright spot was pets: almost half said their pets decreased their anxiety. But that’s a lot of pressure to put on Fluffy and Spot.
Then there’s company health. “One of the most valuable aspects of a co-located workspace is that it’s a forum for informal sense making of what’s happening in an organisation: of figuring out what a company represents,” explains Johnson. “All those corridor conversations and accidental interactions nudge the company forward: help us answer the question of what we’re all doing, what’s the purpose of our work. There isn’t the same capacity to do that in remote working. After all, an organisation is just the social networks people create. If you decouple the organisation from those networks, you’re just left with individuals doing tasks.”
Company bosses can (and are) trying to recreate these networks with informal online meetings – rant sessions, virtual bars, talent shows – but it remains to be seen whether they can be effectively replaced.
“A lot of it is subliminal,” points out Johnson. “We’ve developed cues, in traditional workspaces, that might be hard to recreate externally. It’s like people working longer hours when they’re at home. [Three to four hours longer each day, according to US figures.] Part of that is the loss of cues: seeing other people closing their laptops; exchanging goodbyes; noticing that you’re getting fewer calls, less emails. Can you re-create that at home?”
Perhaps not – and at home, you have an entirely different set of motivators, which can clash with, or bleed into, your work. “There’s a real loss of boundaries between work and home. People are thinking, ‘Well, I did that jigsaw with my child; I did that load of washing, so now I should work till 10pm,’ ” says Elisabeth Shaw. “There’s a sense of guilt – who do I owe what? I’ve had a lot of people say they don’t know what’s fair and reasonable in this new context.”
Finally, home may not always be the ideal physical environment to work. And although workplaces may encourage inequalities among staff due to things like corner offices and executive parking, most also provide at least a baseline level of safety, efficiency and equipment for all employees. At home, this level playing field is lost.
Saying “I’ve got to work” might be an excuse – but it could also be a preference. Working from home has really exposed that.
“Not everyone has a confidential space with a door that shuts and great internet coverage,” says Shaw. “We mustn’t glamorise working from home: it’s not always about being in your private study with a lovely view and keeping an ear out for the case of wine being delivered. We work with families who have to go to McDonald’s to get the internet.”
Family life, indeed, may not be a beneficiary of working from home, but instead a potential casualty. “Interrupting your work day to read a story or play a game to a child can be a delightful break for some,” says Shaw. “But for others it’s too big a leap. Maybe people have to own their reluctance to actually be with family all the time. Saying ‘I’ve got to work’ might be an excuse – but it could also be a preference. Working from home has really exposed that. And that’s led to more discussion, and more conflict in families.”
Another issue, which companies have neatly avoided discussing, is that at home the employee is responsible for costs like electricity and the internet – not to mention incidentals like toilet paper and tea bags. It appears that, at this point at least, nobody has yet worked out an equitable way of compensating workers for such costs.
All of which makes the point: it might be unfashionable to admit, but the boring old office does serve a purpose. Business is always susceptible to the new, the trendy, the startling – it’s no surprise some of the most enthusiastic adopters of remote working have been tech companies like Twitter and Facebook – but as Johnson says, “It was only a few years ago that those companies were all about bringing home to the office: letting employees do their laundry and have dinner at work. These same companies are now saying, ‘Stay home, do all those things at home, and work there, too.’ ”
It’s naive to think this change is simply to make employees happy. That might be a by-product, but it’s based on the same things business is always based on: cutting costs and increasing profits.
In the Netherlands and Finland, remote working is a part of life. Even before the pandemic, almost three times as many Dutch people worked remotely as did Australians. Dutch society reflects this in real ways: community libraries include large co-working spaces; many cafes cater particularly to remote workers; 98 per cent of homes have high speed internet coverage.
“Values such as democracy and participation are deeply rooted in Dutch working culture,” explained Aukje Nauta, an organisational psychology professor at the University of Leiden recently. “Managers place more trust in their workers here than elsewhere in the world. For example, ING Bank [whose world headquarters is in Amsterdam] now has a policy of unlimited holidays for pilot groups of workers, who can take as much holiday as they want as long as their tasks do not suffer.”
In Finland, meanwhile, the Working Hours Act of 1996 allowed most people to adjust their working day up to three hours outside the standard (so someone might start at 6am and finish at 2pm). And a revision of this law gave full-time employees the right to decide from January where they work at least 50 per cent of the time – be it in their summer cottage or their favourite coffee shop.
In Australia, we don’t have the same levels of technological infrastructure as the Dutch; nor the same kind of legislated employee trust as the Finnish. As in the UK and US, “presenteeism” (the pressure to be in the office or be seen as uncommitted) is high, trust low. (Australian companies, along with those in the US and the UK, helped triple sales of staff surveillance software in the early months of the pandemic.)
Nor has there been any high-level discussion in this country of a four-day work week, as there has been in Finland (and New Zealand and the Philippines) as a chance to employ more people amidst pandemic-impacted job losses, while also offering people a better work/life balance. “It looks tantalising,” admits Elisabeth Shaw. “The ability to overwork four days to take the fifth off is very high, as many part-time workers will already know – but it’s a very interesting idea.”
“Looks tantalising,” in fact, is a perfect description for many of the potential changes to work post-COVID. But all of them, say experts, need to be assessed with caution. “We can’t assume another country’s system can simply be grafted on to ours,” says Johnson. “It’s like when you look at everyone cycling in Amsterdam and think, ‘Why don’t we just ride everywhere in Sydney?’ ” She laughs. “Then you hit the first hill and think, ‘Oh, that’s why.’ We have different challenges and vulnerabilities – we need our own solutions. The only certainty is that we will need some kind of hybrid system: some degree of flexibility.”
The best model, experts agree, involves remote working (either at home or in “community hubs”, smaller communal work spaces beyond the company office) plus central offices where people can meet to maintain social bonds and collective goals. But it’s by no means certain what will work, or how. “I do worry,” admits Johnson. “Change is necessary – we need to hold lightly to traditional models. But if we don’t have the right kind of opportunities, we’ll lose those vital connections.”
As luck would have it, David Slack-Smith took on a new role, as general manager of corporate health at NIB, in the very first week of NSW’s lockdown. “Normally, if you’re new to running the business, the default thinking is to meet everyone physically: eyeballing people, building rapport,” he says. “But I couldn’t do any of that. It was just Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting. It was pretty stressful. But it was also exciting.”
Four months in, NIB has decided to offer wide-ranging future work arrangements for staff to consider, including permanently working from home. To support this, initiatives such as home office equipment allowances of up to $300 (which include an OH&S assessment, and the proviso that “you can’t buy a bar fridge!”), a strong focus on mental health support, and a company-wide consultation on the future redesign of office space are all underway.
So where Michelle had to start her own company to get the truly flexible hours and remote working she wanted, David now has them on offer. So much so, indeed, that the family sold their city house in June and are in the market for a rural property near Orange, three hours west of Sydney. “The MD and the CEO are both 100 per cent supportive,” says David. “The whole thing has been a great unlocker. Suddenly, these things in life that really matter – giving the kids the kind of childhoods we had, with the space and the chickens and all that – can actually happen.”
Michelle will continue her business from the farm and David will probably commute one day a week to the city. He’ll still have work stress and long hours, but he’ll also have cows and a creek and – if he has any say in the matter – a tractor. It sounds almost too beautifully work-life-balanced to be true. But in at least one potential post-COVID world, it might turn out to be just another day at the office.
Amanda Hooton is a senior writer with Good Weekend.