The pandemic has had major impacts on the physical and mental health of the general population, on the economy and on many other issues, but there has been a particular impact on working from home. At the beginning of the first lockdown the instruction from the government was that where people could, they should work from home and millions of people did exactly that. Some embraced it while others found it very difficult. Similarly, some employers embraced it and are now looking to make it permanent while others complied with the government guidance but nevertheless recognised that it caused more problems than it solved. In this blog I want to explore the pros and cons of this sudden development but based on my analysis I believe that the cons outweigh the pros for employees, their employers and the economy at large.
Some employers and employees may find benefits to working from home, including:
a healthy worklife balance, including more time with the family
improved job satisfaction
better staff retention
saving money, for example on travel or office rent
But on the other side of that particular coin, some employers and employees may find serious difficulties in working from home including:
inadequate working facilities at home in an inappropriate space
reduced job satisfaction, because of the lack of stimulus from colleagues
reduced staff retention as employees develop serious psychological difficulties, perhaps through living alone and losing social contact
And in the economy at large, while some businesses may benefit through making savings in office rent and other costs, many more businesses are losing business because they depend on supplying those offices either directly or indirectly with catering, cleaning and other services.
Most people will clean their own home, but all offices will employ cleaning services from an external supplier. The savings on transport that individuals are making mean that the railways and other forms of public transport are becoming uneconomic and may not be maintained to the same level in the future. When people work from home, they probably cater for themselves and so will save money on food preparation versus buying their lunch from a Pret a Manger, but therefore the Pret a Manger will lose business and so will its suppliers. in the overall scheme of things, the loss to the economy will be much greater.
What will happen in the future when more and more businesses are finding that their employees prefer to work from home for some or most of the time because employees enjoy not having to commute and are saving money in the process? Surely employers will take the opportunity to say “you paid for your season ticket out of the net earnings you made from your work. Now you made that saving I expect to reduce your earnings as I no longer need to cover that part of your cost.”
What will happen when employees say to their employers “I no longer want to come into the office and will leave your firm to look for alternative employment if you force me to do so?” Surely many employers will say “Well, in that case I will find people in lower income countries who can do the same work. You tell me you can do this work remotely. I tell you that in that case I can find people all over the world who can do this work remotely. “
And how do you recruit and train and develop your new employees when you hardly ever see them. I began my career as a sales representative and received significant personal training on a one-to-one basis over a period of several months. How could I have learned those skills remotely? I was learning them by actually selling to real customers. I could not possibly have done that remotely.
And what about the legal difficulties of all this? Acas makes it clear that when making decisions about working from home it is important to discuss it with employees. For example:
which roles can and cannot be done from home?
who may or may not want to work from home?
any concerns and how best to handle them
This can also help make sure the decisions about working from home are fair and follow the law on discrimination. Employers should also talk with any trade union or other employee representatives. If an employer has an existing agreement with a recognised trade union about working from home, they must consult the trade union if they’re considering any changes. It seems to me that this is a minefield fraught with many hidden dangers. I suspect, though I admit that I cannot prove it, that not all employers are following this advice.
It would seem that almost all of the U.K.’s biggest employers have said they do not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time. The majority said they would embrace a mix of home and office working, with staff encouraged to work from home two to three days a week. Some companies cite smart working and flexibility as reasons for introducing hybrid working, with many suggesting that workers would be able to make their own choices about how often they come into the office. But this is another minefield because for many employees working from home is not a welcome option. If they find that some of their colleagues are doing it and enjoying it while they are doing it because they are being forced to, then we are creating yet again a two-tier society. And that is not just within a single firm but right across society because, of course, there are many, many jobs, indeed probably the majority, that simply cannot be done from home, either at all or very well.
Some people have observed that it is largely the middle-class who have been able to work from home while the working class have continued to work away from home bringing things that the middle-class order on Amazon. Last month Amazon stated employees whose positions allow them to work from home can do so two days a week. Amazon employs nearly 92,000 employees all over the world. The great majority of these are working in the warehouses or in the delivery of the orders and clearly cannot do this from home. The kind of jobs that they are talking about for remote working are jobs like customer service associates. My experience of customer service moving to remote working has been disastrous. I have had numerous poor experiences with almost every company to which I have had to report an issue. I’m now talking to somebody sitting on their own at home in some kind of electronic queue for taking calls so that their service levels are significantly below what is normal. Indeed, the worst of these was when I had a problem with British Airways (doesn’t everyone?) and they, of course, try to get you to resolve the problem online and that is not possible, so I telephoned the customer service number and got the message that the customer service department was based in India and was closed because of the pandemic.
The Ford Motor Company, the fifth largest automobile manufacturer in the world, has stated that employees will be allowed to work from home indefinitely with flexible hours. Hybrid work will be introduced for group meetings and projects where needed. While I know that much of their manufacturing is now performed by robots, nevertheless humans have to service those robots and perform other tasks in a factory and those people will not be able to work from home.
Salesforce, the customer relationship specialist, has declared the 9-5 workday dead and now offers three categories of flexible work for employees: Flex (only in the office one to three days per week), fully remote, and office-based (the small number of staff who need to be in-person four to five days per week). SAP, the German based provider of enterprise software and services, is adopting a 100% flexible, trust-based model. Siemens has declared that 140,000 of its employees can permanently work from home for two to three days per week. Similarly, Spotify, the Swedish provider of audio services downloaded from the “cloud”, (i.e., with intensive CO2 emissions from thousands of servers), recently announced that employees can choose to work in the office, remotely, or in a company-paid coworking space. Twitter, another firm with a colossal carbon footprint, has said its employees will be able to work from home indefinitely, going into the office if and when they chose.
All of this sounds very liberal and considerate to the desires of the work force. But I think the unintended consequences could be catastrophic for the companies themselves as they lose control of their agenda and for society at large as cities become non-viable. As offices close and small suppliers go to the wall, where will the taxes and business rates come from that pay for the services. As the hybrid format becomes the new normal what will happen to public transport and other services? How can they be sustained if demand falls to 50% or less versus the previous normal? Pandora’s box has been opened and I doubt if it can ever be closed unless employers take a firmer approach. And how about this story for hypocrisy?
“A majority of Googlers wants to be in office a significant amount of the time,” declared senior Google exec Urs Hölzle last September. “Theyre don’t feel they’re as productive at home as they were at the office. And that’s ignoring the social aspects of work. To deal with disagreements requires trust, and trust requires social interaction, and social interaction via video only is hard… Creating software very much is a team sport.”
This came as news to many of Google’s employees, who were rather enjoying WFH and in particular, the freedom it allowed them not to have to pay sky-high prices to live near the company’s San Francisco Bay HQ. But since then, the company has effectively ordered staff back to their desks, saying it expects most staff to work in offices at least three days a week.
Most – but not all. Earlier this month Hölzle announced to staff that he himself would no longer be turning up to the office in California. Instead, he says, he and his wife have “decided to spend a year in New Zealand and see how we like it”.[i]
[i] Private Eye