Working from home: the great debate
Many of the nuances of remote working are now second nature to the third of UK employees who’ve been #WFH for the last year. From the commute to the kitchen table, collective cries of ‘you’re on mute’ and endless interruptions from inquisitive pets, the global pandemic has demonstrated just how quickly we can adapt when it’s a necessity to do so.
A sense of cautious optimism has accompanied the vaccine roll out, and with it, so have questions about whether our ‘new normal’ will transition back to the old one. In regard to the world of work, some are left wondering if it’s even the most desirable option.
The news, polls and social media are fit to burst with polarised opinion; working from home success stories pitted against employees desperately willing a swift return to the relative peace and quiet of the office. And the dissent starts from the top down.
When Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, planned to announce his back to work strategy last summer, he was met with outspoken resistance from his own MPs. A London-centric approach eager to get workers back in the capitol is said to have caused “a right old ding-dong” with suburban MPs well versed in the pains and challenges of the commute.
While many businesses have been ruminating over the benefits of remote working for years, the pandemic accelerated that change. It also revealed that some sectors are naturally better equipped to accommodate remote working than others.
Unsurprisingly, the technology industry proved to be highly adaptable, with many big names quickly announcing a permanent move to remote first working, including Shopify, Upwork and Quora. Others, such as Twitter, Google and Facebook, opted to build policies and practices around a hybrid approach, giving employees the autonomy to choose if and when they returned to the office, if at all.
A hybrid model which offers the option to work remotely or in a central hub is lauded as a compromise which could placate advocates in both camps. Research from the George Washington University also suggests it might be the most popular amongst employers, citing 8 out of 10 firms are expected to adopt a hybrid model.
A mixed approach isn’t without its critics, however. Rather than offering employees the best of both worlds, Sid Sijbrandij, CEO of web development platform GitLab, believes it offers the worst.
Hybrid creates two fundamentally different employee experiences to manage. To get everyone on the same level, a company would need leadership to leave the shared office so no single physical place holds more power than another.
Sid argues that if not effectively planned and catered for, hybrid models may serve to exclude remote workers, achieving neither the proposed benefits of fully remote or in-office working.
Despite the swathes of businesses publicly downsizing physical offices, he predicts that organisations who commit to neither approach fully will ultimately end up U-turning.
These companies will write off remote work as a novel experiment, blame it for operational difficulties, and pull remaining remote workers back into the office.
Unlike tech, which adapted quickly and largely with consensus, the UK’s banking sector seems most publicly at odds with the remote working conundrum. Senior figures from a number of high street banks have lamented the prospect of the extended home working.
Goldman Sachs CEO, David Solomon, denounced remote work as an “aberration” to correct as soon as possible. This is in sharp contrast with HSBC who announced plans to cut the number of its offices by 40%. Lloyds Banking Group also announced plans to reduce its office space by 20% within the next three years.
Employers in the pro-remote camp like HSBC and Lloyds are likely motivated by the prospect of a healthy boost to employee engagement. Removing the stress, time and cost of the commute is a big tick in the pro column for many employees as a bid for better work life balance. Conversely, many workers report to working longer hours, victims of ‘an always on’ culture. The prospect of higher output with reduced overheads is certainly appealing to employers but there are reams of data to support both sides of the argument.
This dissonance is causing rifts across the working world. Banking employs over a million people in the UK, and like the Government, it’s clear the big guys are not immune to indecision. After initially declaring big city offices “may be a thing of the past”, Barclays’ boss Jes Staley had a swift change of heart, suggesting he wanted his workforce to return back to the office ‘over time.’
Mr Stately it seems, is not alone in thinking twice about a commitment to remote work. Professional Services firm, KMPG runs a regular survey of the top 500 CEOs heading up global leading businesses. The latest results (March 2021) revealed only 17% were considering downsizing their offices in favour of remote working compared to 69% in August 2020.
Fears around data protection, the erosion of company culture and collaborative working underpin many of the concerns around not returning to the office. And arguably, innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The value of spontaneous interaction, natural rapport building and being able to instantly understand social cues without the barrier of a screen make it much easier to bounce ideas of colleagues in person.
And yet despite the challenges, it appears the freedom and flexibility afforded by remote working has struck a chord with many employees. Prior to Covid, 68% of British employees had never worked from home. A YouGov survey found of those that did, 91% want to continue working remotely at least part of the time after restrictions have been lifted.
These sentiments were mirrored in a travel survey of 5294 Liftshare members launched in response to the 2021 national census. When asked how they would travel to work next year, 26.8% of respondents said they would be working from home for the majority of the time, up from 4.41% before the pandemic.
As with organisations of every size, in every sector, the individuals that work within them have unique needs, wants and preferences. Whether it’s temperament, technology, space or circumstance, there are a lot of variables which dictate how successful employees can be when working at home.
Equality of opportunity isn’t a challenge confined to the traditional construct of ‘work’. Privilege looks like a home office, a decent internet connection, a quiet space. Those juggling domestic or caring duties with work are likely less able to focus than their counterpart who can shut the door on such distractions.
Data from before the pandemic showed that visibility and presentism is a real issue for remote workers. The Stanford Graduate School of Business found that despite being 13 % more productive, remote workers weren’t recognised with promotions at the same rate of their office colleagues. With disabled employees and women with young children more likely to benefit from the flexibility of home working, there are fears this could damage the diversity of future leadership.
These concerns also extend to young people entering the workplace for the first time. Carolyn Fairbairn, Director General of the Confederation of British Industry said
Learning face to face in the workplace is an unbeatable way to build skills and confidence. We must not deprive the next generation of this opportunity.
It’s clear a change in our working habits is going to have a strong and lasting effect socially but what of the economic and environmental impacts? While some organisations are reaping the benefits of remote working, the disappearance of people (and the contents of their pockets) predicts a bleak future for SMEs who exist to serve the needs of commuting office workers.
The desertion of the highstreets and with it, valuable passing trade, saw Pret a Manger cut nearly 3000 jobs in August 2020. A report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) suggests that’s only a taste of what’s to come should Britain’s workforce fail to return to the office. The report warned a permanent move to remote working could shrink the economy by £480 billion.
Rather than expensive rents and city living, a change in habits could see employee pay packets leech out of urban areas. Working from home comfortably requires more space which could fuel a demand for bigger houses. It’s predicted this could see the commuter belt double in size, with employees willing to travel further if the commute is less frequent.
Prior to Covid, the commute contributed 18 billion kg of CO2e annually – 5% of the total UK emissions. The IEA found Government lockdowns triggered a fall of 50% to 75% in road traffic around the world.
A reduction in commuting offers real environmental benefits but Margaret Bell, professor of transport and the environment at the University of Newcastle warns the further you travel, the more detrimental effect with emissions. Her team found in a study of commuters to Newcastle, the 7% of trips over 50km were responsible for 60% of the carbon emissions.
It’s evident that there can be no one size fits all approach to remote working and what’s a good fit for one individual or organisation won’t be for another. It’s also clear that the benefits that come with a behaviour change of this kind and scale also have trade-offs which will have lasting and long-term environmental and economic effects.
The dichotomy around remote working is just one example of how the pandemic will continue to shape our lives long after the immediate danger has passed. As the dust begins to settle in the coming years, organisations will be expected to solidify their remote working policies. While the Prime Minister has signalled a ‘significant return to normality’ by Christmas, it’s clear that the topic of remote working, for the vast majority of employers, the jury is still out.