RUTH SUNDERLAND: Working from home not a lifestyle perk

RUTH SUNDERLAND: template

  • Sooner or later home workers will need to pack away their tracksuit bottoms and squeeze back into their suits
  • My suspicion is that the pre-pandemic status quo will reassert itself sooner than we think, once we are confident the virus is in retreat
  • Most of us carried on going out to work even in the teeth of the lockdowns, though the experience was very mixed 

A Bank Holiday Monday morning is not the ideal moment for people who have been working from home to contemplate a return to the office. 

But sooner or later – and unless new variants delay the unlocking, it will be sooner – home workers will need to pack away their tracksuit bottoms and squeeze back into their suits. 

As the months have ticked by, WFH has become embedded. What started as an emergency health measure is now seen by some as a positive development that should be adopted permanently, but by others as a skivers’ charter, ‘shirking from home’. Battle lines are being drawn up. 

The home front: Sooner or later home workers will need to pack away their tracksuit bottoms and squeeze back into their suits

The home front: Sooner or later home workers will need to pack away their tracksuit bottoms and squeeze back into their suits

My suspicion is that the pre-pandemic status quo will reassert itself sooner than we think, once we are confident the virus is in retreat. 

Most of us carried on going out to work even in the teeth of the lockdowns, though the experience was very mixed. WFH is socially divisive. Affluent professionals in the south were far more likely to have done so than those in less well-off areas in the north. The Office for National Statistics found that just over 46 per cent of people in London had worked from home at some stage during 2020, compared with only 14 per cent in Middlesbrough. 

Even among the professional classes, not everyone benefits. It’s commonplace that WFH is damaging for the young, who miss out on mentoring, but congenial for more senior staff with established networks and a lovely big house with a book-lined study. Among large firms, the consensus is that ‘hybrid’ working will be the norm post-Covid, with staff coming in two or three days a week and offices acting as a space for collaboration. 

How, though, will they deal with the fact no-one will want to schlep in on a Monday or a Friday? Fights over who works which days are going to make the war zone that is the Christmas rota look amicable. 

Re-purposing offices as collaborative hubs sounds great but has a big flaw. Creative ideas spark spontaneously when colleagues are together. Eureka moments cannot be conjured up to order because it’s 2pm on Wednesday and that’s the designated weekly time. 

Many companies have got through the crisis by drawing on their accumulated social capital, the existing bonds and understanding between colleagues. That, however, is a rapidly depreciating asset. 

There is a difference between Zoom colleagues and real live ones, just as there is between Facebook friends and proper pals. 

Above all, people are being lulled into a false sense of security. Employers who encourage home-working are not being philanthropic: they have a beady eye on the bottom line.

They think they can save overheads on office space and facilities such as providing and staffing a canteen and maybe by shedding UK staff and replacing them with new workers in cheap locations overseas. 

Traditional working has plenty of obvious drawbacks: the commute, the crowds, the presenteeism, the high property prices in London and other cities. 

It’s certainly worthwhile reflecting, post-Covid, on how this can be improved and modernised. 

But the only reason to advocate continued home-working as a mainstream practice is if it would bring compelling benefits for firms, staff and the UK economy. 

WFH and furlough have supported the economy through a dark time but the risk is they create a culture of entitlement. 

That is the last thing we need at a time when the nation desperately needs to strain the sinews to bring the battered economy back to life.

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