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Dear Comrade: How do we hang on to our pandemic silver linings?

Dear Comrade is Megaphone's advice column, where union members and officials respond to your questions about work, activism, and the world. Submit your question here.

Dear comrade,

I’m the delegate on site for an office-based workplace in Melbourne. Like a lot of Victorians, my colleagues and I have been working from home for much of the year. We’re as sick of Zoom meetings as everybody else. 

But…

Some of us are enjoying working from home. For me, cutting out the one-hour commute each morning gives me a big sleep-in! And at the end of the day, I can take my dog for a walk while it’s still light. 

The lack of access to childcare has meant our unit manager has been juggling work and taking care of two little kids - so he’s been understanding of people jumping offline to manage remote learning or other family needs. 

One of my coworkers, Anna, has been trying to negotiate for more flexible work hours for years, so that she could be home when her kids get home from school, but was always told it was impossible. Now she has proven - beyond doubt - that she can do her job in this way, she doesn’t want to go back to the bad old days. 

Another colleague has moved out of the city to be closer to their parents, and has no interest in returning to city life. 

On the other hand, plenty of our younger staff are desperate to get back to the office and resume their usual social interaction - coffee breaks, drinks after work, and lunchtime hangs. Others in the middle would prefer some sort of mix.

The pandemic has been awful, obviously, but my coworkers and I don’t want to give up the silver linings we’ve found! Now that the Premier has announced a roadmap back to ‘COVID Normal’, how do we avoid slipping back into those old, inflexible ways of working?


Dear Silver Linings,

This is going to be the next big battleground in our workplaces - kudos to you for planning ahead!

As a delegate,you certainly seem to have your finger on the pulse of your workplace, but it may be worth having some quantitative research to back up your anecdotal evidence of workplace attitudes. Consider developing and distributing a survey of attitudes to working from home amongst your members, with space for people to add in their own ideas about how things should work in the future. Even if HR has already done something like this, you’re going to want to see the results for yourself! 

You and your colleagues have shown that you can work remotely and, presumably, still get your work done to an acceptable standard. It is worth gathering some evidence. You don’t say what kind of office work you do, but you’ll know what metrics your company values; whether it’s sales figures, customer queries answered, or what have you. Even if those numbers have slipped in the past year (they certainly may have - the pandemic has been pretty disruptive to a lot of businesses), you’ll want to know that information before you take your case to management. Work-from-home arrangements aren’t necessarily the cause of any decline in performance, and returning to the office isn’t necessarily the solution so be prepared to offer alternative fixes if necessary. If those metrics are different across different areas of your workgroup, get your members to help you put your case together. Different types of roles may also be more or less conducive to WFH arrangements.

Flexible work arrangements also have the potential to make your workplace more accessible to a broader and more diverse pool of workforce talent, including people with disabilities and people who need to work part-time. These people might not currently have a voice at your workplace - you can advocate on their behalf!

Regarding the “roadmap” to ‘COVID Normal’, density limits are an opportunity to test the practicality of a mix of WFH and office-based arrangements. But before anyone starts returning to the office, your employer has a duty to make sure the office is COVID-safe. You and your HSR should check out www.covidsafeworkplace.org for resources! Members may also have concerns about how they get to and from the office if they are coming in, particularly if they are using public transport. 

You don’t need to wait until your next round of bargaining to start advocating for your members on these questions. Start gathering your evidence and talking to your members, and set up consultation meetings with management. Don’t forget to keep your union organiser in the loop.

Some of us are enjoying working from home. For me, cutting out the 1 hour commute each morning gives me a big sleep-in! And at the end of the day I can take my dog for a walk while it’s still light.

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