When lockdown started in March, all but ‘essential workers’ were either furloughed or told to work from home (WFH). While employers were expected to encourage a return to the workplace in August, it remains to be seen how many will do so in the long run. Many countries have eased their lockdowns and ensured a return to work, but the UK government stands accused of equivocation and putting out mixed messages.
After initially successfully getting across the message that those that could should stay at home, Boris Johnson now wants people to get back to work ‘as safely as possible’. However, the chief scientific officer, Patrick Vallance, has said that, for many companies, WFH ‘remains a perfectly good option because it’s easy to do’. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has insisted that employers ‘make sure’ that their offices are Covid-secure, just as environment minister George Eustace wants people to ‘come back’, but ‘in a socially distanced way’. Meanwhile Frances O’Grady, the TUC General Secretary, believes that only workplace risk assessments can build public confidence that it’s safe to return.
At the start of September 2020, schools re-opened, but public transport ran at a fraction of its normal capacity, while city-centre chains such as Prêt made 2,800 stuff redundant. Officials launched a call-to-arms PR offensive to remind people that workplaces are safe and sociable places to be, warn them of mental-health issues stemming from WFH – and warn them, too, that jobs WFH might not be safe. This last suggestion met with accusations of bullying.
If it was bullying, it didn’t work. While three quarters of employees on the Continent have, reportedly, returned to normal work, in Britain the figure is closer to half. But the threat of losing your job is nevertheless real: 730,000 people have lost theirs since lockdown in March. Meanwhile, the number of under-25s claiming Universal Credit has more than doubled, to 538,000. As for the furlough scheme, it is due to end in November.
But surely allowing people the freedom to choose where they work, and giving them greater control over their work-life balance is a good thing? Won’t less commuting and attending silly meetings do wonders for productivity? After all, Google has told its 200,000 workers that they can stay home till next summer at least. Other BigTech companies, including Twitter and Facebook, have given staff the option to work from home indefinitely. At the same time, firms from Coca-Cola and Vodafone to RBS and KPMG have said they’re unlikely to ask employees to return this year.
One riposte to the vision of a New Normal through WFH is that it can all too easily turn out to be LAW – Living at Work all the time. The blurring of the private realm of the home with the public world of work may make it harder to balance the two. At home there are distractions: when children were off school and childcare provision much worse than usual, UCL found, the hours that could be worked at home fell by 40 per cent. Women and the poor have been especially driven from pillar to post by the closure of nurseries and schools.
A recent poll found that 42 per cent of respondents WFH miss their old working lives, and that 47 per cent miss the old social interaction. Similarly, a third say it’s hard to motivate themselves; almost a third, that they find it hard to switch off; and a quarter are working longer hours. A fifth confess to actually missing the commute home – perhaps because, for all its horridness and length, it provides an important marker of the boundary between home and work. Arguably full-scale, face-to-face, real-time accountability, teamwork and leadership with colleagues and clients are the high-productivity way to get the big tasks at work done. Indeed, one might ask where blue-collar workers who still ‘go to work’ feature in this new vision of WFH.
Beyond Covid, there are a number of arguments put forward in favour of WFH, from improving wellbeing to cutting down CO2 emissions. It certainly looks hip – as well as a bit Silicon Valley – to write off physical proximity as old-fashioned, and to greet a new regime that is mostly WFH as ‘inevitable’. But what of the wider consequences? Might not your job be shifted elsewhere, where work comes cheaper? What of the impact on high streets and the wider economy? Which of these changes are a consequence of the virus and which were coming anyway? Will they be a temporary arrangement to be abandoned with the passing of the pandemic or will they become a permanent fixture of the New Normal?
historian, political and current affairs broadcaster, journalist and musical broadcaster; currently working on a book about Benjamin Disraeli’s influence on twentieth-century and contemporary Conservative politics
fellow, Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development
visiting professor, London South Bank University; co-author, Energise! A future for energy innovation; co-author, Why is construction so backward?