A conservative view of back-to-work orders


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I’ve heard a lot of conversations on a similar theme over the past year. They are now more frequent, more intense, and disagreement often generates a hostile response.

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I’ve heard a lot of conversations on a similar theme over the past year. They are now more frequent, more intense, and disagreement often generates a hostile response.

Regardless of context, they are all post-pandemic conversations, despite the fact more Manitobans than ever are dying of COVID-19. They are rooted in the comforting delusion that “the way we were” was good, and that a return to those days is somehow possible.

It would be fair to call these conversations “conservative” — but I don’t mean Pierre Poilievre’s version of conservatism that channels Benito Mussolini.

I’ve heard similar sentiments from people who voted for new Mayor Scott Gillingham, and from others working hard to help NDP Leader Wab Kinew turn the political page in Manitoba next year. These well-minded people all share the conservative idea of clinging to the good stuff they remember, in a world in which it is either under threat, or long gone.

So, to solve the problems of downtown, we need to get people back into their old offices. We need to mandate a return to working like we did before. Pushing the same agenda, the federal government has ordered the immediate return (partial, at first) of its civil servants, regardless of whether their jobs can be done just as well from home. (A union challenge to this is apparently brewing.)

Other employers are taking the same coercive approach. University teaching is all supposed be in-person, and no doubt there are administrative conversations about requiring professors to maintain actual office hours on dormant campuses, which students scramble to leave as soon as their classes are over.

I’ve heard people wax eloquent about the importance of physical collegiality, of how being in the same space sparks creativity, relationships and creates a productive and healthy work environment — and I have used my poker face to keep the peace.

Yet all these conversations have a common blind spot: we are never going “back to the future.” If you take the view from the shop floor, there were lots of things wrong with how things were before the pandemic began — and we now live in a very different world.

Despite this, I am commuting again — two hours a day — adding that physical toll to the financial costs of operating (and parking) a vehicle. Of course, my income has not increased to match the extra expense, nor am I commuting in all the spare time I apparently used to have, while lolling about the house.

I risk getting sick, in a job in which there is no sick leave or sick pay. One employer mandates masks; the other shrugs them off. (I wear one myself, regardless.) Last term, 10 per cent of my students every week told me they were sick, with something, and this term is no better.

So, on top of the risks and commuting, I also have to find ways to accommodate sick students, so they don’t lose their term.

New students entering university had virtual high school, so in-person classes are an added strain on them, too; senior students may never have been on campus before as they close out their degrees. Campus facilities are poorly staffed or closed, so there is literally nothing to do except go home.

We parrot the importance of accessibility, whether for students with disabilities or for students who face social, cultural or financial barriers to post-secondary education. Remote or distance learning (done properly) solved many of those problems, but that seems to have been forgotten in the push to get warm bodies back on campus.

Mental health has been neglected, too. The stress levels for students (of all ages), teachers and back-to-the-office workers are spiralling up, but that doesn’t seem to matter.

During the pandemic years, I was happier, healthier and wealthier working from home. I realize this was an extremely privileged position to be in, one that too few people shared.

But I also realized the things I had always accepted as necessary or unavoidable were actually neither. I had choices; I made choices — and that’s what is bothering me right now.

Community can’t be coerced, especially in a time when autocracy has no friends. You can pull an Elon Musk and require anyone who wants to keep their job to get back to the office, in person, and so slam the door on learning or working remotely.

But it won’t recreate that rose-coloured glow of “the way we were,” because for most of us, our working reality was a much different colour. So, while we will return, as ordered, I suspect resumé writers and headhunters have a busy year ahead of them.

For our own good health, we want to keep that control over our own lives the pandemic showed us was possible. The pandemic not only reminded us that life is too short; it also showed that having good mental and physical health means following the beat of our own drum, as we live close to home.

That, too, is a conservative idea.

Peter Denton is a writer, activist and academic — for now.

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