Over the past couple of weeks, the denigrators of working from home have been speaking up. The loudest voices have been in UK Government. The Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself being quoted in The Guardian as saying:
“My experience of working from home is you spend an awful lot of time making another cup of coffee and then, you know, getting up, walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese, then walking very slowly back to your laptop and then forgetting what it was you’re doing.”
This is possibly more of an insight into his own working practices. (I personally found office treats and birthday cake (let’s not mention birthday cake, Boris) were equally hazardous for the waistline and productivity.) While we know it’s easy to procrastinate (possibly by eating cheese and drinking coffee), perhaps Johnson would benefit from a few homeworking tips to improve his productivity.
- Reduce procrastination
- Set up a more productive workspace
- Cope with distractions
- Set clearer goals to reduce drifting off (to the fridge)
The advantages of working from home
My serious point is that we have all had to adapt over the past couple of years, and many people, have done so very successfully. As people have adapted, they have also started to appreciate the benefits of added flexibility and autonomy. It has had had an overall positive impact on people’s ability to manage their wellbeing.
Clinical psychologist and Senior Business Partner for Mental Health at Rolls Royce, Dr Stephanie Fitzgerald spoke to The Homeworker about the future of the workplace. “Typically, we lose a huge number of women around the age of menopause as they can’t manage their symptoms so they leave the workforce which is a huge loss to the business. We’ve seen that massively drop in that over the last few years as people have been able to work from home and manage their symptoms.”
There are people who prefer the office environment and some roles benefit from people being present. For most knowledge workers however, working from home should be an option. It, along with other flexible working practices such as job sharing or flexible hours, creates a more inclusive working environment. It allows many people to work around their needs such as caregiving or a disabilty.
• Read how working from home has impacted different lives in volume 3 of The Homeworker print issue
I posted this on Linkedin the other day. Here are just a few examples of why the option to work from home can be a lifeline:
- The lady who got to sit with her dad in the hospice during his final days.
- The dad who was able to take his daughter to school when she was going through a tough time.
- The man who was able to take a longer walk at lunch time to help cope with his depression.
- The mum who was able to see her child’s artwork exhibited over her lunch break.
Flexible working gives people agency. The ability to self-manage is empowering; perhaps this is why there is resistance?
The war on remote working
Jacob Rees-Mogg has also waged war on remote workers. His seemingly desperate attempts to lure people back to the office come via condescending notes on empty office doors, to threatening to cut London weightings on salaries, and leases on office space not fully occupied. The Cabinet Office minister has been looking for correlations between sunny days and people working from home. He seems hell-bent on finding some evidence that working from home is an excuse for kicking back with the TV on.
This lack of trust appears at odds with the general mood of where the future of work is going. It is also contrary to what many Whitehall employees have been doing long before the pandemic. In a piece in Volume 2 of The Homeworker by senior lawyer for the Government, Susha Chandrasekhar, she talks of her work from home setup and ability to negotiate multi-million dollar deals from the comfort of her London flat. It was a setup that Whitehall encouraged and that she embraced as flexible and forward-thinking.
• The work from home revolution: One dad’s personal account of transitioning to homeworking
• The future of work – read our feature inside Volume 3 print edition.
For many tens of thousands, working from home only began because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Have there been occasions when Covid has been used as an excuse for working less, not sticking to deadlines or delivering on services? Undoubtedly so. The Institute for Customer Service found complaints were at their highest level last year since 2009. It has said Covid can no longer be an excuse for poor customer service. But this does not have to be synonymous with working remotely.
The benefits of allowing people to work from home seem to outweigh the negatives. Stanford University Professor, Nicholas Bloom has been studying remote working for years. His research found people are more productive when working from home. Of the 22,500 respondents, over 85% said they were as productive if not more so. It also found the stigma around working from home has diminished. Despite what Rees-Mogg will have us believe, over two thirds of those surveyed thought the perception of working from home had improved.
The future of work debate
More than two years since the first lockdown, whether to work from home or not remains a polarising topic. On one hand, you have organisations such as Airbnb who are giving their staff the ultimate freedom to work from home, or indeed anywhere. On the other, you have the likes of Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon wanting a return to office, having called working from home an “aberration”.
Amid these comments, Lord Alan Sugar waded into the debate off the back of an announcement by Pricewaterhouse Coopers that it would offer half days to employees on Fridays over the summer, as long as work is done.
This is a bloody joke. The lazy gits make me sick. Call me old fashioned but all this work from home BS is a total joke. There is no way people work as hard or productive as when they had to turn up at a work location. The pandemic has had long lasting negative effect. pic.twitter.com/MvS2cX9K8C— Lord Sugar (@Lord_Sugar) May 5, 2022
His comments that “all this work from home BS is a total joke” and branding people who work from home ‘lazy’, is an insulting swipe to all those who have worked incredibly hard over the course of the pandemic to keep businesses afloat.
Let’s not forget all the self-employed people who also manage to work from home running successful businesses (even without succumbing to a daily cheese plate).
Apart from the fact the PwC statement is not really about working from home, some Twitter replies made reference to the fact Lord Sugar has a large commercial property portfolio, particularly London office space.
With footfall in the city centres down, Transport for London has also reported usage is still far below pre-pandemic levels. Figures show journeys are still around 30% down from January 2020.
WFH is part of the future of work
When you take Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Sugar, Solomon, there seems to be a certain demographic who are calling for a move back to the office. They did it that way, so isn’t that how it should always be done?
There are certainly advantages to having time in the office occasionally. Having focused on homeworking the past few years (and done it myself for over a decade), I have always acknowledged that mental health, collaboration, and community are challenges. But having just lived through the pandemic, we know there is no need for a return to the office five days a week. Hybrid working is a happy balance when people are given the choice of how often and when. It is why coworking venues are growing in popularity as a chance to leave the house and meet in person.
We also have a cost of living crisis on our hands. Adding commuting costs by forcing a return to the office is unlikely to go down well. Employers will need to look at how they can better support remote workers, rather than giving them ultimatums.
This is an opportunity for leaders to rise up to the challenge and to convey a renewed sense of purpose. It is an opportunity to do things better, for people to work in alignment with their lives and values. Give people trust and autonomy as well and you have the ingredients for highly productive, self-motivated workers.
In this instance, with the Great Resignation ongoing and job vacancies at record highs, the balance of power has shifted to employees. Employers need to recognise this to attract and retain the best talent.
Sadly for Boris et al., it is the workers who can have their cheese cake and eat it.