I’m getting very frustrated at hearing politicians and others encouraging people to “go back to work”. What do they think people have been doing at home for the last six months? They’ve been WORKING. In many cases they’ve been working so successfully that they can’t see a good reason for returning to the old way of working, involving stressful, time consuming, commuting and unnecessary exposure to a potentially deadly virus.
There are many surveys showing that people who have been working from home don’t see the need for returning to the office. They and their managers have found ways to work successfully that don’t involve face-to-face contact and certainly don’t need someone to be in the office every day. A poll of 5,000 workers and 2,000 employers found that half of employees are reluctant to return to their old workplace despite firms spending millions on preparation. The majority of the public are in favour of continued home working as well, according to another poll.
Amongst all the surveys there has been an authoritative report written by two respected academics. “HOMEWORKING IN THE UK: BEFORE AND DURING THE 2020 LOCKDOWN” by Alan Felstead and Darja Reuschke, is based on data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study covering around 6,500 workers. To quote from this report “Nine out of ten (88.2%) of employees who worked at home during the lockdown would like to continue working at home in some capacity with around one in two employees (47.3%) wanting to work at home often or all of the time. Furthermore, employees with little previous experience of homeworking had not been put off by the experience of working at home – half (50.0%) of new homeworkers would like to work at home often or always even when Covid-19 restrictions permit a return to ‘normal’ working. This suggests that a key characteristic of the new normal will be much higher levels of homeworking than in the past.”
This report also stated that “A common fear among employers is that without physical oversight employees will shirk and productivity will fall. However, homeworking on the whole in the lockdown did not appear to have had a significant effect on productivity levels either way.” So the idea that employees have to get back to their old workplace to improve their output is not very convincing. Instead, many employees have managed to maintain or improve productivity despite home conditions not being ideal. Once the children are back at school and child care arrangements are in place, many parents will find it easier to work at home.
Another survey concluded that a clear majority of British workers believe working from home has increased their productivity, with just 15% saying they are less productive. So in the interest of the UK economy we should be as productive as possible and therefore be encouraging employees NOT to be returning to their old workplace. The problem with this is that in the short term some city centre services will suffer because their customers are not commuting in any more. The restaurants, coffee shops and bars will not have people spilling out of offices in the same way as before.
Instead of trying to turn back the clock to an outdated way of working we should be embracing the new ‘hybrid’ work pattern where some work is performed at a central location, but the rest can be done anywhere. Home is just one of the options available once people are able to work remotely. This means that the city centre office becomes a meeting place where people come in to socialise with others. And this is good news for the restaurants, sandwich shops and cafes. People will be travelling in to central locations to meet face to face over a coffee or a meal. Having lunch together over Zoom doesn’t really work!
We need to rethink the way we have been working for the last 200 years. The Industrial Age model with everyone clustered together in the same workplace is over. Were are now in the Internet age where people can collaborate without having to be co-located. We are also in an age of environmental consciousness and questioning the need for so much work-related travel. It’s taken a pandemic to open our eyes to the fact that we are stuck with an outdated model of work and now is the time for change. In the concluding words of the Felstead and Reuschke report “However, increased levels of homeworking could contribute to a greener and more sustainable future. In this alternative world, cities which are not built around fast roads connecting workplaces to residences, but are focused much more on integrating working spaces into the home, and promoting green and lively neighbourhoods. Now may, therefore, be the time to radically rethink the design of mono-functional city centres and turn them into multi-use places that accommodate low-pollutant manufacturing, green spaces and leisure facilities. Increased levels of homeworking may help to usher in this alternative future.”