As we enter what must surely be the last furlong of this unpleasant and unique chapter of our lives, the post-pandemic landscape is already on the horizon. But as we emerge, blinking into the light, we won’t be going in quite the same direction as before.
Habits we built up over the years will no longer seem acceptable; practices that were once the norm will be seen as offensive. Our lives, as the TV presenter and environmentalist Julia Bradbury pointed out this week, will have changed in a hundred different ways.
In particular, a year of working from home will fundamentally shift our notion of a tolerable work-life balance. Expectations that office staff should have to stuff down a lunchtime sandwich without leaving their desks, or put their hand up if they want to use the loo, will be as abhorrent as lighting up a cigarette in the workplace.
Above all, we will cling to the unrestricted access to fresh air that home working has given us – unrestricted, that is, within the 30-minute window permitted for daily exercise. I’m led to believe they’re allowed longer than that at Armley Jail.
To this end, Ms Bradbury has been encouraging others to follow the example of a firm in Bedale that has built “outdoor time” into the working day, going so far as to install kennels so that their staff can walk their dogs before returning to the daily grind of the sausage machine. That’s not a figure of speech; it really is a sausage factory.
Our revised expectations might also extend to the way we dress. After a year of going to our desks in loose collars and jeans, will we want to go back to suits and striped ties, or will we be going to Sports Direct for our next business outfit instead of Moss Bros?
Others will be reluctant to return to the office at all, having proved that they can be just as productive elsewhere. Company directors can hardly complain – for years they have been happily outsourcing office tasks to Mumbai, so they’re in no position to turn around now and claim that Menston is too far away.
The consequences of all this will be far reaching. The £85m office development unveiled opposite Leeds Station this week may be redundant before they’ve cut the first sod.
The council says the building, just around the corner from the old Majestic cinema that is Channel 4’s new HQ, will help demonstrate the extent to which the city is ready to bounce back from the pandemic – and of that there is no doubt. But whether it will involve embracing office culture in the same way as before is another matter. This is a watershed moment.
It was on Channel 4 last weekend that the scientist Hannah Fry compared the likely outfall from Covid with that of the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. That, she said, was followed by an overwhelming need to be together and the consequent erection of palaces of entertainment in which people could congregate. The Majestic was one of them. History may repeat itself this time but our desire to socialise with each other may come at the expense of any wish to go on working together.
A world away from central Leeds, the vision of the new normality envisaged in the Yorkshire Wolds seems nearer the mark. Having identified that holidays at home will be the year’s growth area, the operators of Driffield Showground have given over large sections of the site to camping and caravanning. It’s a move that will also benefit the reopened pubs, shops and restaurants nearby. And if social distancing is still required in the summer, a large field will be exactly the place to do it.
It may be just a transient phase. We will put the past months behind us quicker than we think, and look back on them as an aberration, in perhaps the same way as the power cuts and three-day weeks of the 1970s. Not long ago, BBC2 made a series in which a family was made to survive for a month like that. They waxed lyrical about the indomitable spirit of their forebears, just as future generations will condescendingly do about us. I won’t be around to see it, but all the same, if anyone from the BBC is reading this, I’m claiming the format rights.
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