Inhabiting time: a new look upon work in times of coronavirus
Article drafted by Marc Grau-Grau in People acciona 20 April 2020
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The COVID-19 crisis may become a symbolic revolution in our regard to the way we work and provide care. In essence, a new look upon how we live.
Promptness and efficiency are two features of modernity which are closely related: doing things as good as possible and increasingly fast. Thus, progress comes into being. The fathers of sociology, who were nothing but observers of their reality, witnessed with their own eyes how a world collapsed and a new one rose along with the industrial revolution. They examined the reconfiguration of two worlds that were previously one: work and family. Among many elements present in this new world, there’s a primordial one: the factory, and with it, a new timing of society. If the beginning and the end of the workday was marked previously by the sun, now the clock became the guide.
A new way to measure time: the clockization of society
This clockization of society has brought along countless benefits, but also substantial risks that are still present. One of them is the shift from promptness as an axiom to over-acceleration. Said over-acceleration is linked to distraction, anonymity, and lack of reflection. Even tourists are in a hurry, as pointed out by Polish sociologist Zygmunt Baumann. And this over-acceleration has led us into living a paradox: time without time, or according to Gustavo Duch, time famine. Let’s delve into the implications of this concept.
The paradox of time without time
Time famine, or time without time, is a subjective perception from an objective situation where a person feels that he hasn’t enough time to fulfil all his demands, responsibilities, and working, family and personal duties. This “I don’t have enough time” notion, ever-present in post-industrial societies, has been undervalued as a minor, light issue until the Covid-19 crisis. Experts, however, warn that this minor, light and invisible issue has hard, major and visible implications when speaking of health, productivity and quality of relationships, which mark the quality of any given society eventually.
This situation has aggravated with new family dynamics over the last few decades, where a model in which just one of the parents had remunerated work and the other provided care –breadwinner model-, transitioned to another where dual-income partnerships reign, requiring a new organizational dynamic still in the works that reinforces this perception of perpetual lack of time.
One of the most remarkable initiatives promoted by both governments and organizations in order to solve this perception was the implementation of work-life balance policies. The ultimate goal of these policies is to rely on each individual’s good judgement, and to provide enough autonomy in order to better manage their work, family and personal requirements.
Coronavirus crisis: work-life balance policies, and legitimacy to benefit from them
Despite the democratization of work-life policies within many organizations, social researchers highlight an underutilization of said policies. This phenomenon is explained by many reasons, and we’ll delve into them in later articles; but the most commonly mentioned by employees are lack of legitimacy, lack of communication, social and cultural standards, and the flexibility stigma, which is nothing but a perception of possible negative effects on the professional trajectory of both men and women linked to benefitting from these policies.
Nevertheless, the Covid-19 crisis could transform the present landscape. The irruption of the new coronavirus, leaving all its bitter consequences aside for a moment, can also mark a new starting point regarding a new working reality. Teleworking is one example of this. In just a few days, it transitioned from being a non-widely spread option to becoming, although forced by circumstances and not devoid of possible negative consequences still to be examined in detail, an alternative that has saved numerous jobs.
Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu published an insightful, sharp and penetrative analysis of French painter Édouard Manet. In it, he invited readers to reflect upon the concept of symbolic revolution and the roots of its importance. Symbolic revolutions are those which establish new cognitive structures, new ways of perceiving, reading and seeing reality. Perhaps we’re amidst one of them already, without noticing it. Let’s hope that we know how to take advantage of such a critical situation in order to paint a new landscape regarding how we work, how we provide care and, ultimately, how we live.
 Term coined by Leslie Perlow, professor at Harvard Business School.
 Flexibility measures must offer two features: providing autonomy, and the necessary time frame in order to achieve assigned goals. In the current situation, both features become blurred.
The views expressed in this paper are solely the authors’ views.
Research Fellow at the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School and a Researcher at the ChildCare and Family Policy Chair at UIC.