Working life has entered a new era

Working life has entered a new era(ˈirə, ˈerə)

Farewell(ˌferˈwel) BC (before coronavirus). Welcome AD (after domestication(dəˌmestəˈkāSH(ə)n))

On March 16th Bartleby(bardəlbē) left the offices of The Economist(əˈkänəməst) to head home. That was the last day when all editorial(ˌedəˈtôrēəl) staff assembled in our London redoubt(rəˈdout). And, at the time of writing, no date for a return to the office is in sight.

It is remarkable how quickly we have adapted(əˈdapt). The newspaper has been written, edited and produced from couches(kouCH,ˈko͞oCH ˌɡras) and kitchen(ˈkiCH(ə)n) tables. January(ˈjanyəˌwerē) and February seem like an ancient(ˈān(t)SHənt) era—the bc (before coronavirus) to the new ad (after domestication). The shift may rival(ˈrīvəl) great workplace transformations in the 19th and 20th centuries. Twitter has already said that all its employees will be allowed to work from home permanently(ˈpərmənəntlē) and Facebook expects half its staff to do so within a decade.

It has been a much more sudden transition than occurred with factories. Steam power meant they were designed around one great power system, complete(kəmˈplēt) with belts(belt) and pulleys(ˈpo͝olē) that snaked(snāk) through the building. A failure at some point in the system meant the whole thing might grind(ɡrīnd) to a halt. Then electrification(əˌlektrəfəˈkāSH(ə)n) allowed individual machines to have their own power source. But it took half a century from the introduction of electricity in the 1880s before factories were reconfigured(ˌrēkənˈfiɡyər) to take advantage of the new power source.

The current, rapid(ˈrapəd) shift to ad was enabled by preconditions. First, broadband(ˈbrôdˌband) services are today quick enough to allow for document downloads and videoconferencing(ˈvidiōˌkänf(ə)rənsiNG). Second, advanced economies(əˈkänəmē) revolve around services, not manufacturing. Back in the 1970s, when Britain(ˈbritn) adopted a three-day week (to combat(ˈkämˌbat) a miners’ strike), there were power cuts and tv stations had to close down early. In other words, home life was severely(səˈvirlē) affected as well. The pandemic has not turned the lights off.