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Sleeping in the office is making a comeback? Elon Musk would approve – but what about having a life? | Emma Beddington

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It feels like we talk about work more than ever, but also that we’re ever more unsure what to think about it. I suppose the two go together: if we had reached a serene consensus about the space it should occupy in our lives and souls, we would just get on with it. Instead, bewilderingly contradictory takes on the philosophy of work are everywhere, flowering and fading as fast as TikTok microtrends.

For instance: the Washington Post declared this week that, like high heels, sleeping in the office is “making a comeback”. This in response to Elon Musk’s blowhard demand that staff sign up to work like dogs or ship out (followed, of course, by the inevitable backtrack when many reportedly chose the far-more-attractive ship out option).

Hysterical recent defences of “work hard, work hard” culture have included praise for a pic of Twitter exec Esther Crawford curled up on the office floor in a sleeping bag. This austerity Silicon Valley 2022 is unremittingly bleak: all the hours, none of the granola bars and massage chairs. At least in my corporate law days there were actual bedrooms to ensure billable hours stayed at a healthy 80-plus a week. A venture capitalist who tweeted something aggressively basic about how the future of work was “actually working hard” and “working in an office” was endorsed, inevitably, by Elon Musk with a thumbs-up emoji.

Meanwhile in the UK, a new report from the Chartered Institute for Professional Development found that 67% of respondents have seen “leaveism” at work – taking holiday to catch up on your work backlog, dear God – in the past year.

What else? Well, there was “quiet quitting” hot on the heels of the Great Resignation, wasn’t there, both intermingled with the burnout epidemic. It has been a big year for laziness too, with Liz Truss’s claims that the British are the “worst idlers in the world” resurfacing. (In fairness, wiping £30bn off the economy in mere weeks is arguably proof of an almighty work ethic.) There was competition from France where a major poll of working attitudes this month revealed 69% agree with Green politician Sandrine Rousseau’s assertion that workers should have a “right to be lazy”. Of those polled, 54% saw work as a constraint, not a source of fulfilment, and 45% said they did the strict minimum. There is a wider belief there that asserting your right to leave, leisure and a life outside work is a duty, not a self-indulgence, since these were hard-won, historic social gains.

It’s a weird time. Various existential threats have given us hefty doses of perspective and the paradigm of work being what you go to a specific place to do at specific times has been shattered. But we’re struggling to draw the logical conclusions, or the knot that binds hard work and virtue hasn’t been sufficiently loosened yet.

I believe I am fulfilled by what I do (though arguably this merely proves I can’t escape the long shadow of the Protestant work ethic). When I play “What would you do if you won the lottery?” with friends, I’m the one who admits, sheepishly, they would still like to work. But I have struggled more with the old work-life chestnut recently. Right now, I’m in the library typing this, when outside there is brilliant sunshine (thank you, nightmarish climate catastrophe, making all this laughably trivial). Of course, I need to pay the bills, but how many of my remaining days will be spent tied to this laptop, occasionally pressing my pasty face to the window, like a Victorian ghost? Is there a better way?

One work-related microtrend that gives me a shred of hope is the report that 86% of organisations participating in the UK’s four-day week experiment think they will keep going after the trial is over. Does that mean there might be a way to reconcile the imperative of meeting our material needs, our compulsion to have purpose and be productive, and our desire to be with those we love, doing things we enjoy? An acknowledgment that fulfilment is more than a good annual appraisal? Meh, it probably won’t catch on, but I’m still taking this afternoon off.

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The Groucho

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