SUCH is my sad longing for a foreign holiday this year that when I saw TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp’s tweet this week that began, “If your job can be done from home it can be done abroad...” my mind immediately cut to me in a scarlet one-piece cozzie, varifocal sunglasses perched low on my nose, squinting at my MacBook in the fierce Mediterranean sun, bashing out some copy or responding to emails from colleagues. However, closer inspection of said tweet had me breaking out in a fevered, nervous sweat, despite the coolness of a dreich, rainy day in Glasgow.

The tweet continued “...where wages are lower. If I had an office job I’d want to be the first in the queue to get back to work and prove my worth to my employer. I am terrified by what could be on the horizon for so many.” Allsopp had given us a peek into a post-Covid crisis world where, yes, emissions might be lower, the smog may have cleared from above our cities and we can hear birdsong again but where employers and corporations realise that office workers like me might be dispensable and off-shoreable. They have done it with manufacturing, call centres, and banking, what was to stop them doing it with office workers?

Somewhere, someone in the corporate world is doing the sums right now. Massive office blocks on prime sites in London housing thousands of workers demanding decent wages, pensions, benefits and bonuses, versus disparate foreign workers happy to be paid lower rates. All linked up by technology and the internet, isolated at random locations around the world, who won't be looking for cheap transport or expecting a good coffee shop nearby.

It will make Brexit – where we apparently wanted to stop ‘them’ coming over to steal our jobs – look like a complete irrelevance, because now all ‘they’ need is a half-decent command of English and an internet connection be they in Milan, Bucharest or Seoul. It’s the nightmarish scenario where full-blooded, unfettered capitalism can inexorably take us, if we are not very careful.

Having spent most of my working life in an office, but a significant period working from home, the single biggest difference between the two experiences was human interaction. Its importance can’t be quantified or tracked on a spreadsheet, but it’s surely one of the biggest benefits of side-by-side team-working.

Sparks of an idea, hints of a possibility, a supportive smile, a chance meeting in a corridor or even the most subtle of eye rolls can all lead to innovations that can’t always be captured in a Zoom video call. The power of people from different backgrounds, cultures and abilities pouring their energies and perspectives into a single project together is both magical and inspiring. It’s an ideal situation where work doesn’t feel like work per see, but is more a productive extension of yourself. It strikes me that sitting in splendid isolation at a laptop discussing work with a colleague on Skype is the very antithesis of this ideal. It reminds me of what Karl Marx called the alienation of the worker from his/her product and from other workers. Without that direct human interaction or connection alienation becomes a very real possibility which can’t be advantageous for the worker, the product or by extension the company.

Training would be next to impossible. As a former production trainee 99% of what I learned in my career was through interacting with my seniors and watching them at work. Interning from your bedsit in Dundee whilst your team members are scattered around the world doesn’t feel like a young person’s dream job. Missing out on the after-work chat where those tidbits of information are devoured and stored doesn’t bode well for their futures.

There would be huge concerns around data protection when data is being stored and used across multiple territories, and legal protections would be a minefield for UK companies looking to offshore. And it’s fair to say off-shoring hasn’t exactly been a golden panacea for call centres. Many UK companies experienced a backlash against telecom or IT call centres abroad. Customer issues with language, cultural norms and etiquette soon meant that UK-based call centres became a unique selling point with consumers.

History tells us that huge and systemic change often occurs after big events – war, famine, disease. We need to be ready to argue against this off-shoring not by queuing up “to get back to work and prove my worth to my employer” in the middle of a global pandemic, but by arguing that our work cannot be out-sourced because it is more than just ‘product’. It is a synthesis of collaboration, creativity, complementarity and cultural-awareness. And these can’t easily be replicated without affecting the bottom line adversely.

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