Working from home isn’t working, at least for the young

It is not so fine if you are snowed under with conflicting demands and trying to get stuff done from a laptop in a bedsit, writes Hamish McRae

Tuesday 23 March 2021 21:30 GMT
What have we really learnt from the year of lockdown, aside from the fact it is better for the top dogs than the grunt workers?
What have we really learnt from the year of lockdown, aside from the fact it is better for the top dogs than the grunt workers? (Getty)

Goldman Sachs has come under attack for the pressures put on junior members of staff. A leaked presentation revealed that on average first-year analysts in its investment banking division were working 95 hours a week and sleeping for five hours a night. A majority reported that if conditions did not improve in the next six months they were unlikely to stay.  

In response, Goldman chief executive David Solomon reiterated that the firm is committed to not making people work on Saturdays, one of the recommendations from the survey, and explained that the bank would be more selective in accepting work. But the most interesting point he made – one that affects people far beyond the lofty heights of New York investment banking – was this: “In this world of remote work, it feels like we have to be connected 24/7.” 

If your office is your bedroom, how on earth can you switch off?

This is very much an age and seniority thing. The first annual Microsoft Work Trend Index has just come out. The company surveyed 30,000 people in 31 countries and while it concluded that remote work was here to stay, it also revealed that bosses were out of touch and needed a wake-up call.  

The key metric that highlighted the bosses were out of touch was their response to the question as to whether they were thriving or struggling. For business leaders (who were mostly male) the split was 61 per cent thriving versus 39 per cent struggling/surviving. For first-year workers the results were reversed: 64 per cent were struggling and only 36 per cent thriving, and for single people they were worse still, with 67 per cent struggling, 33 per cent thriving.

Other points included the evidence that high productivity was masking an exhausted workforce, that generation Z (people aged between 19 and 25) were particularly at risk, and that shrinking networks were endangering innovation.

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I think we all intuitively know all this, in particular, that remote working is fine if you have a home office at the bottom of the garden and you can tell junior staff what to do. But it is not so fine if you are snowed under with conflicting demands and trying to get stuff done from a laptop in a bedsit. So what’s gives?

Microsoft charts one way forward, with suggestions such as: “Create a plan to empower people for extreme flexibility”, “Combat digital exhaustion from the top” and “Rethink employee experience to compete for the best and most diverse talent”. The best employers will try and follow these policies, though some of us will regard this sort of management-speak with a certain cynicism. “We are a caring employer” too often means “we pay starvation wages”. Whatever you think of Goldman Sachs it does at least pay top dollar. 

So what have we really learnt from the year of lockdown, aside from the fact that is better for the top dogs than the grunt workers?

Two things stand out from the Goldman Sachs experience. One is that there has to be some sort of delineation between work and leisure. We cannot be connected 24/7. Going to the office provided that break, with the quick drink in the pub on a Friday evening defining the end of the working week. Commuting, for all its horrors, suited many people very well, because it made the distinction between work and leisure quite explicit. It was the period of downtime that marked the shift from one type of activity to another. If you troubled someone at home you apologised for doing so.

The other is that what moves companies to act is staff turnover. Goldman carried out the survey to see how junior employees were coping. Many of the staff warned they might leave if things didn’t improve. If they do indeed leave then the business suffers. It will be harsh economics that will force change.   

From the Microsoft work, I think there are different lessons. The most important one is that productivity seems to have risen, albeit at a cost in terms of employee stress. That is really encouraging, because it suggests that when office life returns, some elements of remote working will be retained. They will be retained partly because people want that, but also because it cuts costs. Companies will need less office space for a start. But the exciting possibility is that the world has hit upon ways of using technology to boost productivity in the service industries.

If this is right, then the implications are massive. Increasing productivity in services is holy grail stuff. It has been relatively easy to increase productivity in manufacturing but much harder in services. Yet services account for an increasing proportion of GDP, 80 per cent in the case of the UK.

Of course, services are a great catch-all, ranging from finance to health care, to education, to hospitality. Remote working does not help the restaurants and pubs at all, and it does not seem to work in education either. But if Microsoft Teams and its competitors really enable sustained increases in productivity then this is very good news indeed. But we do have to look after the people who have been hurt by everything that has happened, especially people starting out on their careers.  

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