Do we ever learn? Collective memory as a blind spot in KNAW report on pandemics

Do we ever learn? Collective memory as a blind spot in KNAW report on pandemics

In its latest advisory report ‘Met de kennis van straks’ (‘With the knowledge of later’), the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) maps out what Dutch science and ...

From sacred to clinical: how the lack of proper burials during the Covid-19 pandemic affected communities in Uganda

From sacred to clinical: how the lack of proper burials during the Covid-19 pandemic affected communities in Uganda

When Covid-19 started spreading across the globe, the World Health Organization issued strict burial guidelines in a bid to curb the spread of the virus. In Uganda, the national health ...

Rebuilding the economy one home-office at a time: the pros and cons of working from the office

Are we sure we still need to be in the office 40+ hours a week? The economy may suffer in the short term if we continue flexible working, but society suffers in the long term if we force a return to the office So, do we really need to return to full time work-from-office? I say no. Hear me out.

It’s 2022, and now that COVID-19 is not as serious a threat, we are collectively looking at figuring out how to move forwards (or backwards) to a post-pandemic reality. This includes the slew of opinion pieces we are bombarded with extolling both the perils and virtues of continued hybrid working (Hsu, 2022; Duncan, 2022; Sherman, 2022). It is time, therefore, to look at both the merits and consequences of not returning to the office.

 

https://www.newyorker.com/cartoons/daily-cartoon/tuesday-june-8th-work-home
https://www.newyorker.com/cartoons/daily-cartoon/tuesday-june-8th-work-home

Before doing my master’s degree, I was working in a large multi-national corporation in Singapore. As someone who had to work from home from November 2019 (read: before the global pandemic) because of a broken leg, but whose job required her to personally connect with as many colleagues as she could, let me tell you that working from an office is not the end-all solution. Before November 2019 I had been going in every day, and not once did I underestimate the power of working face to face in an office environment. However, working entirely from home didn’t stall my productivity either. If anything, the more flexible schedules allowed me to take better care of local and global relationships because I could catch colleagues at all hours of the day based on their own disparate schedules, and take proper breaks in between to deal with personal needs like physio and doctor’s visits, cooking, cleaning, or other household needs for myself and my family without scheduling set office hours or the pressure of commuting. The lack of travel to and from office, as well as huge savings on professionally mandated socialising via lunches, coffees, and drinks meant saving enough money that I was able to pay for my degree almost in full!

 

We saw during the height of the pandemic that our biggest collective fear is facing the consequences of the unknown, which is why the urgency we see from governments and companies in having people return to the office is understandable (Franklin, 2022; Lim, 2022; Forrest, 2021; Gordon and McGregor, 2022). It is far more comforting to revert to the familiar, and in this case, those in charge – from companies to governments, to university administrators – are keen to go back to what they know: physical attendance.

 

Let us give them credit: in-person connectivity has immeasurable benefits. To start with, an influx of staff back to office buildings will certainly help those businesses that rely on office spaces (think cleaners, the food and beverage industry [F&B], real estate), and by extension the families who depend on these businesses. In addition, it is undeniable that team rapports and knowledge sharing are built more effectively through face-to-face interactions. However, this is where the fallacy fails: it is misguided to assume office jobs are only truly effective when conducted from an office. Indeed, the pandemic has taught us otherwise, and forgetting this lesson will result in regressive consequences (Choudhry, 2020).

To be clear, no one questions the need to rebuild economies. This is a feat that takes both manpower and brainpower, but I would argue that the more of both we have, the faster and more efficiently we can rebuild. Working from an office once again limits brainpower to those who are able enough to reach the office in the first place (usually men, the able-bodied, youth, and for instance those who can afford or do not need childcare). In considering this state of affairs, we exclude hugely talented swathes of the community who, during COVID-19 were actually being given the opportunity to find employment through remote-working opportunities, including fully educated but full-time mothers, the retired and the elderly, and those with disabilities. Inherently, in forcing staff back to the office, we once again exclude these groups: fundamentally counter-productive to rebuilding.

 

It is true that maintaining a permanent hybrid working environment does pose risks, but inherently they are all short-term. The most obvious has already been mentioned – the financial strain on the office-dependent businesses and the families who depend on those businesses. By extension, businesses that have depended on in-person connectivity will also be affected, like the airline business. Just recently, British Airways announced the cancellation of 30,000 flights in 2022 alone (BBC, 2022). F&B and hotels are equally affected, as are their related supply chains (Jagt, 2022; Mijnke, Obermann and Hammers, 2022). But people and businesses are creative and resilient. They will find ways to reinvent the wheel and make it work for them. Indeed, considering the tenacity of human nature, we will endure – for instance, an option to convert existing unutilised office spaces into public utility spaces such as schools, day-cares, or temporary shelters with related shops to protect housing and living costs.

 

But for any of these to happen, governments and companies need to stop thinking short-term, and start considering the long-term effects of their actions. A full-time return to office spaces will result in an undoing of all the effort that went into repairing what this neoliberal, profit-centric, exclusionary, high-pressure system progressively broke in the past: from the strengthened family relationships (hello two-year lockdown!) to the healthier diets and more socio-environmentally conscious purchasing and living (home-cooking, supporting local shops, gardening, the upsurge in second-hand markets, a reduction in carbon footprint from reduced traveling). Talent from forgotten resources like mothers, the less-physically-abled and retirees can be reinstated in new forms, and the subsequent intellectual discrimination that has, until now, been a detriment to the economy can be renewed and utilised. The cost, therefore, of forcing a return to the white-light corridors, communal coffee machines, recycled air, and open plan desks will far outweigh the benefits of corporate camaraderie, social capital, and political protection. As important as it is to recognise the value of in-person work, it appears that, once again, companies like LinkedIn and Twitter appear ahead of the curve by suggesting long-term work-from-home options (Kay, 2021; Kelly, 2022). Perhaps the time has come for other institutions to follow their lead and see the value they derive in it. And perhaps in changing what an ‘office’ looks like, corporations can gain back some of the trust they have lost by putting profit over people for so long.

 


British Broadcasting Corporation (6 July 2022) ‘British Airways to Cancel 10,300 More Flights’, British Broadcasting Corporation, accessed 19 July 2022

Choudhry P (2020) ‘Our Work-From-Anywhere Future’, Harvard Business Review, accessed 19 July 2022

Duncan E (18 February 2022) ‘COVID has Changed the Way We Work and There’s No Going Back’, The Times UK, accessed 19 July 2022

Forrest A (3 August 2021) ‘Government Urges Businesses to ‘Ramp Up’ Return to Office this Summer’, The Independent UK, accessed 19 July 2022

Franklin J (1 June 2022) ‘Elon Musk Tells Employees to Return to the Office 40 Hours a Week – or Quit’, NPR, accessed 19 July 2022

Gordon N and McGregor G (29 June 2022) ‘As the Return-to-Office Debate Rages in the U.S. and Europe, the Matter is Already Settled in Asia’, Fortune, accessed 19 July 2022

Hsu A (5 June 2022) ‘The Idea of Working in the Office, All Day Every Day? No Thanks, Say Workers’, NPR, accessed 19 July 2022  

Jagt R (2022) ‘COVID-19 and the Food Industry’, Deloitte, accessed 19 July 2022. www.deloitte.com/nl

Kay D (29 July 2021) ‘LinkedIn Allows Employees to Work Fully Remote, Removes In-office Expectation’, Reuters, accessed 19 July 2022

Kelly J (5 March 2022) ‘Twitter Employees Can Work from Home ‘Forever’ or ‘Wherever You Feel Most Productive and Creative’, Forbes Magazine, accessed 19 July 2022

Lim J (25 April 2022) ‘Some Firms Want Staff Back at Workplace, but Experts Warn Against Rushing Into It’, The Straits Times, accessed 19 July 2022

Mijnke F, Obermann W, and Hammers T (2022) ‘Impact of COVID-19 on the Hospitality Industry’, Deloitte, accessed 19 July 2022. www.deloitte.com/nl

Sherman A (8 March 2022) ‘Making Sense of Why Executives are Eager to get Employees Back in the Office’, CNBC, accessed 19 July 2022


Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Niyati Pingali is currently completing her MA in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), focusing on governance and development policy. As a former corporate employee, she knows the cost and the benefits of capitalism and plans to dedicate her life to changing the narrative to ensure both people and the economy benefit equally: a feat that sounds impossible, but she knows can happen.

 

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

Transformative Methodologies | Changing minds and policy through collaborative research?

Transformative Methodologies | Changing minds and policy through collaborative research?

Can collaborative research with marginalised communities be transformative, turning around unjust social relations, and supporting solidarity and rights in a practical sense? In this blog post, we (Jack Apostol, Helen ...

Reforming the international financial system is no act of charity

Reforming the international financial system is no act of charity

Rolph van der Hoeven and Rob Vos are the authors of a chapter* of the recently published book ‘COVID-19 and International Development’. In this blog, they elaborate on their chapter, ...

Integrated approach to research: Towards transformation of social (gender) injustices: A case of understanding gender-land injustice

This article is a contribution to the transformative methodologies blog series. It argues that employing an integrated approach to research, by equally highlighting status order (such as gender relations, by utilising a gender lens), challenges the focus only on class or political-economic dimensions of research concerns. Hence, an integrated approach to research brings forth the integration of economic (distribution), cultural (recognition), and political (representation) dimensions in knowledge production, thereby challenging the conventional methodological approaches, and elucidating the neglect and invisibility of an equally important research dimension, such as gender relations. 

What is integrated approach and what makes it transformative?

The theory on integrated approach is taken from Fraser’s theory of integrative approach to justice. In this article, the integrated approach is taken and discussed as a methodological approach in knowledge production. This means, taking cognisant consideration of the economic (mal)distribution, cultural (mis)recognition, and political (mis)representation (Fraser, 1999, 2005) in research. As such, these three spheres are considered as equal loci of power structures. Thus, an integrated approach not only challenges power hierarchies, and dominant perspectives and approaches in research, but also explores the transformative potential of undertaking research.

According to Fraser (2005:73), overcoming injustice means eliminating the institutionalised barriers (economic, cultural, and political) that hinder “parity participation” in societal interaction, between and among social classes and status order. Injustice emanates from economic maldistribution, cultural misrecognition (especially women’s subordination to men), and political misrepresentation. Thus, an integrated approach to justice becomes useful in developing a more comprehensive understanding of social injustice, by bringing both gender and class concerns simultaneously to the forefront of research and analysis. In the following sections, I use the case of land injustice to illustrate the utility and challenges of employing an integrated approach towards developing a nuanced understanding of the various intersecting forces that shape and sustain land injustice.

Understanding an integrated approach to research: the case of gender and land injustice

The economic sphere of justice centres on the redistribution of resources, where class structure is the main barrier. When people are deprived of required economic resources to participate fully in societal life, there is a distributive injustice (Fraser, 1999/2005). This subscribes to the Marxian understanding that class is an economic relation between the capitalist and proletariat, and thus focuses on structures of exploitation and domination (Wright, E.O. 2009:60). Examining the agrarian structure, for instance, Borras, (1997/2007) found the link between landlessness and peasants’ socio-economic status in relation to land reform. Borras elucidated, among other factors, that landlessness has a direct correlation with peasants’ poverty and injustice, and landowners’ domination and violence (Ibid). Similarly, feminist scholars have found that women’s landlessness is brought about by both — a lack of land redistribution, and a lack of recognition of women’s equal land rights (see for example, Deere and Leon, 2001, Jacobs, 2013, Deere, 2017 , and Bejeno 2021a and 2021b).

The cultural sphere, which centres on the recognition of status order, posits that status relations (in this case the gender relations) is the main barrier. When people, particularly women, are deprived of required recognition to fully participate in societal life, there is recognition injustice (Fraser, 1999/2005). This gender injustice is produced and reproduced through patriarchy or male supremacy, and is described as “the institutional all-encompassing power that men, as a group, have over women, [along with] the systematic devaluation of all the roles and traits which the society has assigned to women.” (Popkin, A., 1979).  Therefore, under patriarchy, men obtain economic, cultural, and political dominance, on one hand, and maintain women’s subordination and oppression on the other. This divide between hegemonic power of men, and the subordination of women, shapes the societal everyday practices, norms, and public policies, that in turn produce and reproduce gender-based injustice, such as land injustice (Bejeno 2021a).

Now, in the political sphere, which centres on the representation of peoples (in this case of women’s voices and participation), the political structure is the main barrier. When people (such as poor women and men) are deprived of participation, such as in framing policies, there is a representation injustice (Fraser, 2005). The political misrepresentation of women, for instance, in policy formulation and implementation (be it in state or peoples’ organization), may jeopardise women’s advancement and equality, such as in land (Bejeno, 2021a). Thus, by employing an integrated approach to research, the simultaneous scrutiny of the economic, cultural, and political sphere, as discussed above, can result in a more holistic and nuanced understanding of the intersecting injustices at play, thereby pointing to more transformative solutions for societal change.

Barriers in using integrated approach to research in understanding land injustice

In land reform and peasants’ studies, various dimensions of land justice are oftentimes ignored, which render gender (in)justice invisible. Gender justice here means that women are also recognised, for instance, to own land independently, or as co-owners in the event of all agrarian land redistribution (Bejeno, 2021a). Many studies are oftentimes not cognisant of gender inequality and fail to consider the contemporary status relations in the society. Therefore, the land reform discourse remains generally centred on class question, which in turn, continuously neglects gender-based injustice in land reform. Moreover, such a discourse is also bolstered by discriminatory laws and policies, women’s ignorance to their land rights, male dominance in decision-making bodies, directed distribution of land to household heads, (primarily men), and the strong opposition of men, on one hand, and non-assertion of women, on the other regarding their land rights (Agarwal, 1994a; Deere and Leon 2001; Levien, 2017; Morgan, 2017; Leonard, et.al 2015 Bejeno, 2021b:7-8).

This discourse is also rooted in the undervaluation or devaluation of women’s labor and contribution to production, and the equation of reproductive work to ‘unemployment’ (Bejeno, 2021a). Women’s access to, and control over land, is oftentimes determined by the patriarchal households (Walker, 2003:143). And in many cases, women may not necessarily inherit from their husbands in case of widowhood, such as in Sub-Saharan Africa (Doss et.al, 2014) and Asia (Agarwal 1994a and 1994b). A household, therefore, can be a site of women’s oppression (Jacobs, 2002:33, see also Agarwal 1994a) and women’s exclusion from land ownership (Ibid; Bejeno, 2021a; Kieran et.al, 2015; Leonard et.al, 2015, Alano, 2015). In effect, by giving primacy to the economic or productive aspects in research, any other  form of intervention becomes problematic, which, therefore, cyclically places women in less valued, invisible, and marginalised socio-economic and political status, and thus neglects the interconnected root causes of societal inequality and injustice.

Using a gender justice approach, therefore, can illuminate the gender-based power relations and dynamics. Thus, an integrated and transformative approach to land injustice would entail not only ensuring access to and control over land resources for women and other marginalised groups, but also engendering fundamental changes in perceptions of and about women as citizens and human beings (Cornwall, 2016). Transformative approach, therefore, requires an overhaul of social structures and power asymmetries to build a just society, where people, regardless of gender and other status order, have equitable resources, standing, and voice (Fraser 2005).

Paving the way forward for transformative social change

In conclusion, a transformative methodology in research considers both the class hierarchy or economic maldistribution, status relations (such as gender relations) or cultural recognition, and political structure or misrepresentation, to  understand and address societal problems in a more nuanced and comprehensive manner.  The case of land injustice discussed in this article illustrates, for instance, how gender relations, as a form of status order, is often neglected in  more traditional research approaches, and how an integrated approach can offer a more nuanced analysis by taking into account gender relations as a critical dimension of inquiry in agrarian concern. Such an approach, therefore, may result addressing the gendered control of assets, decision-making power within the household and communities, and women’s participation, among others, thereby leading to a more transformative change in the long term.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Cynthia Embido Bejeno is a PhD and a Guest Researcher of Civic Innovation group at ISS

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.