Thanks to the NHS’s comprehensive Covid vaccine programme and the lifting of restrictions, many companies are trying to encourage increasing numbers of employees back into the office. The Office of National Statistics has shown that more than half of employees have returned to their usual place of work, and 6 September marked London’s busiest rush hour since the start of the pandemic – a sign that people are starting to get back into some sort of routine.
But not everyone is so keen to revert back to “normal”, with working from home proving to be a godsend. The BBC found that more than half a million workers will not be returning to the office on the same terms as pre-pandemic, while some companies have decided to make homeworking a permanent fixture. Reach plc, which publishes the Daily Mirror, Daily Star and Daily Express titles, announced in March that most staff will no longer be required to head back into the office.
It’s entirely fair that many people want to continue working from home. Despite fears that workers may consider doing so a bit of a doss, productivity is thought to be far higher than expected – with one study suggesting we are working 47 per cent more efficiently away from the office. It turns out we’re not all in bed with our laptops watching This Morning.
Apart from the obvious money and time saved from not having to commute, remote working allows for more flexibility in hires – a vital step for those who chose to flee London during the pandemic, or those who never wanted to move to the Big Smoke in the first place. Disabled people can access the workplace remotely with little bother. And, of course, many simply don’t want to go back to the office because we’re still fighting a deadly pandemic.
But we need to be more honest about working from home. It’s only really a dream for middle-class homeowners who are relatively well-off and have plush office jobs. Working remotely simply isn’t an option for many in hospitality or retail – and people renting in houseshares may be adversely affected by permanent remote working measures, particularly if they’re already shelling out a small fortune to be living in a city. Those renting on smaller salaries are highly unlikely to have a desk in their bedrooms (or anything that could even vaguely double-up as an office). And many of those in houseshares are young people.
The cramped conditions, limited resources and anxiety are the ingredients for a perfect storm of rising tensions. In reality, the office is more than just a place we sit at a desk and type at until around 5pm – it’s a lifeline for social life, allowing us to establish connections with like-minded people through regular rituals of tea runs and meetings.
And many have failed to acknowledge the blur between work and office life in the supposed work from home utopia. A study by Liberty Games shows that 38 per cent of people are working longer hours from home, while 29 per cent admit feeling more stressed when working in the home environment because we feel like we can’t put space between what we do for a living and where we are actually living anymore.
With the issue dividing staff and employers, conversations around the future of the workplace shouldn’t be so binary. An all or nothing approach when it comes to the office won’t work.
Now the pandemic has revolutionised where and how we can fulfil our roles, it’s all the more vital that employers understand the needs of their workers. Instead of suggesting those working from home take a pay cut (as Google have hinted at), it’s the employer’s responsibility to ensure their workspaces are fit for purpose. If homeworking must be permanent, then it’s down the bosses to check their employees' wifi speed, desk space, and set clear start and end times so office life doesn’t bleed into work life.
If you think it’s vital that your workers come to the office, then the reasons why should be signposted. Employers should also allow for flexibility in arrival times for long-distance commuters, as well as endeavouring to ensure workspaces are well ventilated, have ample space for social distancing, and plenty of hand sanitiser.
The way we work has changed forever, so the workplace also needs to adapt – and it’s down to big corporations to lead the charge. Insisting on one forced approach will result in everyone losing in the great back to office debate.
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