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23 March 2021

The Covid reset

How the pandemic is transforming our relationship with work, leisure and care.

By Anoosh Chakelian

This time a year ago, the UK’s first lockdown had just been imposed. While the fear of an invisible enemy was at its most intense – clearing supermarket shelves and filling tabloids with photos of people out in parks – there was also a collective make-do attitude that was compared to the Blitz spirit. 

The first few weeks of homeworking in my household had a novel thrill. I began to enjoy transcribing interviews in the sunshine, liberated from battles over the office air conditioning. My partner took to wearing a full suit for his working lunches of beans on toast. At weekends, we gamely contributed to a nationwide flour shortage by baking our own bread.

Twelve months on, and more than three months into a third lockdown, remote working has lost its fun. The boundary between office hours and evening time has blurred entirely, to the extent that leaving the flat has become just another item on the to-do list (never before have I so cherished running out of milk).

We’re not alone. During the pandemic, homeworkers in the UK have experienced a 2.5-hour increase in the working day. On average, we are working 25 per cent longer, and only logging off by 8pm. It turns out we former office-goers fill the time we would have spent commuting, or crowding around a Colin the Caterpillar birthday cake in the canteen, with more work. This shift is echoed in studies across the world.

[see also: Why we should celebrate the demise of the office]

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As the New Statesman’s Britain editor, my country suddenly shrank to the four walls of my bedroom and a desk hastily salvaged from some Italian students down the road. Throughout the pandemic year, I have been making calls to key workers, unpaid carers, new welfare claimants and furloughed staffers stuck in limbo. 

I learned that no two people’s experience of the pandemic is the same. School closures have piled pressure on working parents, particularly mothers, for whom advances in gender equality are slipping backwards. More 16- to 24-year-olds have dropped out of the workforce than any other age group. A far higher proportion of Britons from ethnic minority backgrounds have been made redundant than their white counterparts. 

My year of reporting on the societal impact of Covid-19 suggests that a fundamental shift in our relationship with work, leisure and care is under way.

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***

Just as the Second World War transformed British society with the arrival of a skilled female workforce and the welfare state, the pandemic is already leaving its mark. Remote working is here to stay. Google will implement a flexible week of two days’ homeworking for its employees, Metro Bank is developing an office-home “hybrid model”, and law firms in the City of London are shedding up to 50 per cent of their “trophy” office space.

Alongside this physical shift, a quiet revolution is taking place in attitudes towards how we spend our time. Cumulatively, 11.2 million UK workers have so far been supported by the government’s coronavirus job retention scheme, introduced in April 2020. Almost a third of all UK employees were furloughed at its peak last May, paid 80 per cent of their salaries by the Treasury to do nothing.

Millions were given the rare experience of enforced free (or family) time: a social phenomenon unmatched by past upheaval caused by war or recession. “So many people have found themselves in suspended animation – they’ve not been in work, they’ve not been out of work. That is a peculiar feature,” says Daniel Susskind, an Oxford economics fellow and former No 10 policy adviser whose book, A World Without Work, predicted some of the policies that we are seeing today. Mass state employment has triggered an identity crisis for the Conservative Party, which has implemented economic policies usually seen as socialist, and there is soul-searching among the general public too.

“There has been quite an unfamiliar conversation about how people ought to best spend their time in the enforced idleness they’ve found themselves in under lockdown and on furlough,” says Susskind. “Lots of people have a relatively good sense of what gainful employment looks like. I don’t think people have a good sense of what gainful unemployment looks like – we need to be thinking about those things, in a world with less work.”

One events manager for a West End cinema, who has been furloughed since last April, told me how she went from a demanding job that was her “identity” – regularly working until 11pm – to discovering “contentment” in spare time. Now, she makes her own clothes and studies Greek and Roman mythology. “I don’t want to give up my evenings and hobbies; I’d never go back up to the speed I was at before.”

Such revelations could foreshadow a reckoning with Britain’s warped work culture. Since the Industrial Revolution, when gas workers in east London first won an eight-hour working day after a strike in 1889, hours fell steadily until the Margaret Thatcher years. They have plateaued ever since. Now, the UK works longer full-time hours than most European countries, yet its productivity lags behind many international competitors.

[see also: The future of work is flexible]

Spain is beginning a three-year pilot of a 32-hour week, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern has asked businesses to consider a four-day week, and Japanese politicians are debating proposals for a three-day weekend, to address karoshi (death by overwork).

The UK government, whose Brexit deal threatens current labour protections, trails behind this cultural change. Recent UK polling suggests the idea of a four-day, 32-hour week is now highly popular, attracting more than two-thirds of public support. Labour promised a four-day week within the decade in its 2019 general election manifesto. The idea is generally regarded as anti-business by those in power; when he was chief secretary to the Treasury, Rishi Sunak said Labour’s policy would “wreck our economy, harm businesses and drive out investment”.

“Historically, shorter working hours have often been introduced in times of economic crisis, to share the existing work more equally, which helps fight unemployment as well,” says Joe Ryle, a campaign officer at 4 Day Week and a former adviser to John McDonnell when he was shadow chancellor. 

More UK-based businesses are trying it out. “The feedback from our clients is still overwhelmingly positive, and the business is still doing exceptionally well,” says Adam Ross, the CEO of the marketing company Awin, which introduced a four-day week for its 1,000-plus staff in January. “I live and breathe work but have a young family as well, so it gives me time with them. I’m
loving it.”

***

The damage caused by the pandemic is visible in the shuttered shops and offices across the UK’s high streets and city centres. The Office for Budget Responsibility predicts 2.2 million people – 6.5 per cent of workers – will be unemployed by the end of 2021.

In the first year of the crisis, around three million taxpayers – many self-employed – fell through the gaps of coronavirus support schemes according to the campaign group ExcludedUK. Redundancy rates are rising faster now than during the 2008 financial crash. When the furlough scheme ends in October, the picture will be even gloomier. After years of low unemployment, sudden job losses are stretching a safety net worn increasingly thin since the coalition government began cutting welfare a decade ago.

Universal Credit claims have risen 98 per cent since the pandemic hit. That’s 4.3 million more people surviving on the miserly payments, which did not rise with inflation for the four years preceding 2020, and take five weeks for the first penny to be paid.

“I’ve massively lost my faith in politicians,” one new claimant who lost her work as a theatre make-up artist told me. “I can’t just go and retrain and change my career as Rishi or whoever else says – are they going to pay for my childcare while I do?”

Attitudes towards welfare have shifted. At his Budget in March, Sunak caved in to political and public pressure to extend the £20-a-week uplift to benefits he had introduced at the start of the crisis.

When speaking to those turning to Universal Credit during the pandemic, it is clear why there is this shift. More affluent members of society are now relying on benefits for the first time. On average, new claimants come from higher wage brackets and have more savings than existing recipients. They are more likely to be homeowners, university-educated, and from professional occupations. A former businesswoman – who plunged from her six-figure salary to £691 of Universal Credit per month last March having gone freelance just before the pandemic – told me she was struggling to buy food. “I’ve paid over half a million pounds in tax in the last 20 years. It goes to show you haven’t got the support you thought you had.”

As one Universal Credit call handler put it: “The sort of people enrolled on Universal Credit now are electorally much more powerful than the people you see normally.”

***

Yet the future of those still going in to work is perhaps the most uncertain. The crisis has been characterised by a tendency to treat essential workers as heroes, rather than humans. The majority have been declined payments intended to see them through two weeks of self-isolation, and the government refuses to raise statutory sick pay, which remains at £95.85 a week.

From hospital cleaners to takeaway couriers, many I have interviewed face the choice of either losing two weeks of income at no notice, or risking spreading the virus by ignoring an instruction to self-isolate. A carer, who was told to self-isolate for a fortnight with no financial support from the government or his agency, told me: “I’m sick of all these ‘thank yous’.” Paid the minimum wage of £8.72 an hour on a zero-hours contract, he was insulted by the lack of help. “If you can work from home, there’s no issue – but the people who can’t are probably mostly essential workers, right? People you clap your hands for.”

Covid-19 has exposed the gulf between those whose precarious livelihoods depend on physical interaction and people like me who can work from home with relative ease. This divide portends an unequal recovery, but it need not. 

No matter what our circumstances, Covid-19 has reset our lives and I see this in microcosm around me: in my Uber driver neighbour who swapped long nights for fixing up bikes and now has time to play with his young children; in a retired resident caring full-time for his husband, whose respite centre is being cut by the council despite unpaid care work rising by nearly 50 per cent during the pandemic; and in fellow homeworkers on my estate, uniting to challenge our housing association on its broken promise of fibre broadband.

The pandemic has not impacted us equally, but our encounters with Britain’s fraying social fabric could yet force fairer and more fulfilling lifestyles for us all.

This column appears in the New Statesman’s forthcoming Spring special, subscribe here

This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special