Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) in Downton Abbey

Maggie Smith’s Downton Abbey character, Violet Crawley, famously asked, ‘What is a weekend?’ Her question was born of privilege, but that’s where we find ourselves now. The need for online access and devices in every home might finally make internet connectivity a musthave rather than a nice-to-have: closing the digital divide is the new democracy. The telecom companies need to come to the party, and they have indicated that they will: data prices have come down (even though they’re still way higher than anywhere else on earth) and each university student was given 10GB free data at the start of term. Working from home (WFH) means the perpetual quest for work-life balance is over: we mix work-work with housework, homeschooling and (hopefully) some downtime throughout the day. So we knead the dough, edit a story, conduct a phone interview, sweep the kitchen floor, write a brief, deal with a teen, bake bread, have a Zoom meeting, do a 20-minute yoga class, answer some emails… and so on and so on.

Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) in Downton Abbey Photo Gallery

This total integration can be very liberating: the hard lines between ‘work’ and ‘play’ have always made us, mainly women, feel that we were failing at one of them. Total Integration means we’re in charge: we can shift as we need to. And WFH is here to stay: most employees of Google will WFH hatis a weekend ? – Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) in Downton Abbey until 2021, and Facebook will allow all workers who are able to WFH to do so even after the company’s offices reopen in July. Movement out of cities is already happening: density is increasingly viewed as a problem. Besides, everything that we loved about cities (the bars, restaurants, theatres, galleries, public spaces) is no longer allowed.

So you’re left with the downside of cities instead: long distances, public transport, crowds, small living spaces and so on. The new motto is, where there is wifi, there is work. Small abandoned villages in Italy are being repopulated by workers leaving the cities – all they need is a good internet connection. If and when people do go back to offices, open plan will be a thing of the past. And expect increased germaphobia: everyone will have their own mug; the office fridge will be bristling with ‘Don’t Touch!’ signs; and people will be sanitising their own work surfaces. Restaurants will need to have open kitchens where customers can see the hygiene levels and there will be issues around trying on clothes or makeup in store. But back to the office. Whatever happens, the traditional nine-to-five five-day workweek is over – which doesn’t mean that we work less: NordVPN reported that average workdays are three hours longer since lockdown began.

There are interesting ideas coming out about how to get back to work without risking the virus. Two Israeli scientists propose exploiting a key property of Covid: its latent period: the three-day delay on average between the time a person is infected and the time they can infect others. They propose that people work in two week cycles: in the office for four days then, by the time they might become infectious, 10 days at home in lockdown. So the population would be split into two groups who work alternating weeks: half the salary, half the time, double the workforce. Austrian schools are using a simple version of this, with two groups of students attending school for five days every two weeks. It started on 18 May. Distance-learning is used on the other days. An added advantage is that it reduces density: only half the number of students is at school at any given time. The idea is that kids would go to school on the same days as their parents go to work. This could work very well in South Africa, where too many students and a shortage of qualified teachers are ongoing post.

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