Wednesday, 22 December 2021

Criminalising the bullied


One of the problems faced by the first capitalists with their mills and their machinery was the pre-existing work culture amongst a largely agricultural population. The idea of working the same hours every day all year round was a strange one to a population used to the idea of working when things needed to be done, spending longer in the fields in the summer and staying indoors more during the dark winter months. In time, the idea that ‘work’ required regular hours on regular days in a regular location became so deeply ingrained that most workers – to say nothing of most employers – now find it difficult to conceive of an alternative model.

One of the few ‘benefits’ of the pandemic has been to challenge that concept of ‘work’. Whilst many tasks still require a physical presence at a set location (although increasing use of robots and AI will reduce that number over time), what the pandemic has shown us is that with modern technology at our disposal an awful lot of work does not require that workers are in a set location or even working set hours. Some employers are even seeing this as an opportunity to reduce office costs (and improve staff morale and motivation) by no longer requiring physical attendance on a regular basis. Others are in a state of near panic, so tightly bound by the old paradigm that they don’t understand how they can ever manage people without physically policing their activities.

As we know from ‘Britannia Unchained’, the idea that workers are essentially idle is not only the strong belief of many employers, it is also rife at cabinet level. From their perspective, they work hard and deserve the rewards that go with that; the rest of us are born idlers who need to be kept in line with clear rules and firm discipline. It’s part of the explanation which Raab and others have repeated for those Downing Street ‘gatherings’ – these were people working under extreme pressure and needed the relaxation, whereas the rest of us (including front line health service workers) needed to be kept in line and observe the rules. They seem to genuinely believe that preparing for, and debriefing after, press conferences is more exhausting than simply looking after the sick.

Anyone who has ever considered the question of productivity in relation to much office-based work knows how difficult a concept it is. At its simplest, productivity is simply output divided by input, but in many – perhaps most – office jobs, ‘output’ is difficult to define and measure. Lazy employers therefore fall back on measuring the easy part – input. Or, as it’s otherwise known, hours worked. They even build up a bureaucracy around time keeping, with a host of rules and exceptions, in order to train their staff to work by the clock. No surprise that many end up presiding over a workforce of clock-watchers as a result. They’re measuring completely the wrong thing, of course – output is far more important than input. Most of us who’ve ever worked in an office will be able to think of at least one person who’s worked long hours without producing very much (or even who has done more harm than good during the hours worked!), as well as someone else who’s managed to appear totally on top of his or her job without ever staying after the end of the day. For employers measuring only input, ‘working from home’ has left them feeling threatened and vulnerable. Instead of asking how they can assess what their staff are producing, or even think about how to encourage a culture of wanting to be productive, they’ve resorted to using fancy monitoring software and demanding that staff return to the office prematurely.

The decision of the Welsh Government yesterday to introduce fines for those who go to work when they could be working from home is very badly targeted. Whilst the objective (reducing contact) is the right one in the face of the pandemic, fining workers who are bullied and feel threatened by incompetent employers who are unable to manage a workforce other than through monitoring their presence in the workplace is merely adding to the pressures on the individuals. It’s taking the easy option – just like those employers who only measure input – rather than the difficult one, which is about encouraging and helping employers to find new working methods (or, as a last resort, fining those who don’t). At a time when the people of Wales have shown, in general, an amazing willingness to act collectively and follow the leadership of Drakeford and his government, criminalising people who are in fear of losing their jobs because of the actions of bad employers is intensely counter-productive. It’s a surprising lapse in judgement from a man who has generally been seen to be doing a good job.

Update:  The First Minister has subsequently clarified that there has been some misreporting over this issue, and the intention is not to punish those attending their place of work, but to support them by providing a solid reason for them to refuse a request from their employers. It's a welcome clarification, although it says something about some employers that their staff need to be threatened with prosecution in order to persuade them to behave reasonably and lawfully. There is also a danger, of course, that announcing that there is, in effect, no intention ever to actually fine anyone might serve to weaken that protection. Still, not enforcing laws seems to be the in thing when it comes to Covid, as we've seen with certain parties... 


Spirit of BME said...

I think the Rt.Hon. Professor,‘Diwali'Drakeford has been smelling the diesel again.

John Dixon said...


Unnecessarily harsh and rather over-presosnalised, I think. I won't argue that Drakeford has got everything right (he hasn't), but he's carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders. And I'm certain that he is trying to minimise deaths and hospitalisations, unlike the man in Downing Steet, who believes that the bodies should be allowed to "pile high". Whilst this isn't ever going to be universally true, most people in Wales seem to prefer to have Drakeford taking the decisions than Johnson. "Better than Boris" may not be much of an accolade for anyone, and it's a low bar. But we have to take small mercies sometimes.