Time autonomy is timing out

Jess Page explores the autonomy provided to us during Covid-19 lockdowns, and asks where it went.

Art by Khanh Tran.

During the height of the pandemic, months of lockdown introduced us to a new and frightening concept: time autonomy. Also known as ‘work autonomy’ in different contexts, this new concept gave us leniency over how we spent our days as well as a genuinely unprecedented amount of trust that students and employees would be committed to their daily responsibilities. In a break from authoritative and capitalistic work structures, individuals were able to operate without a strict schedule or harsh penalty for falling short of ‘normal’ expectations. 

Initially, the freedom to set my own routine felt like an extra chore. It required an amount of mental space that was already clogged up with stress and uncertainty. However, as this newfound experience of autonomy over time was slowly and silently accepted into our lives, a rhythm of work, hobbies and creativity emerged. And I worry about it going away too soon.

For many, the re-opening of the country post-lockdown has probably coincided with a dramatic drop in any sort of creative output. Whilst it’s unlikely that this output was ‘thriving’ during lockdown and to suggest that artists who found it hard to create in a pandemic have failed to use their time well would be incorrect and damaging  I noted some trends in how we went about allocating our time. 

As someone who craved routine more than anything during lockdown, I set myself hard deadlines for pieces of fiction I wanted to finish and polish over the lockdown period. I filled the unexpectedly empty spaces in my schedule with new plans to write more and write purposefully. Myself and others who found themselves similarly engaged during lockdown revelled in this autonomy over our time, and the knowledge that flexibility existed was often enough to feel on-track. Lockdown was just a small sampling of what time autonomy looks like, and now it is beginning to fall away. 

Among the many things leaders and employers expect to quickly snap back to normal is this: our newfound level of control over our time must be handed back, despite the benefits it brings to our lives having been thoroughly realised. Hobbies, creativity and personal expression will return to the periphery of our lives as we all become the ‘better’ workers we once were at the expense of our health and our quality of life. I, for one, do not want this to happen.

Staring down the scary reality of unfilled time helped me realise that it was not a lack of time that prevented me from writing, but rather a complete lack of agency over how my  time should be organised. 

As hard as it seemed, we made time autonomy work for us over lockdown. Flexibility was the norm and we became the benefactors of it. As a new semester starts, I am continually reminded of its benefits, even as it seems to be fading into memory.

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