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Are rising energy costs the end of homeworking? Unlikely. The reality is much more complicated.
The New Statesman promoted one of their articles on Twitter this week with the statement ‘why energy prices will kill working from home‘. That’s a bold statement, particularly as a Twitter poll they conducted at the end of August found around 84% said they planned to continue working from home this winter. While Twitter polls are far from an accurate depiction of what is happening in the world outside social media, it does seem a bit of a mismatch.
The truth perhaps lies somewhere in between and may be impossible to predict. I spoke recently to a political expert who said he was constantly asked to predict the future and that that is a fool’s game, particularly now with so much uncertainty around. The New Statesman‘s article outlined the average costs that they supposed would constitute working from home and weighed them up against the average costs of commuting and found that it cost more to WFH. Therefore, it surmised that many people would be going back to the office.
Of course, there will be a lot of people doing their own calculations and for many it will make more financial sense to go back to the office, but for many others it won’t and for still others there may not be an office to go back to. We certainly know of employers during the last recession who went virtual to save on office costs – the temptation may be even greater as employers face rising energy [and knock-on] costs and struggle to stay afloat. There’s a whole different issue around how much financial support people who work from home should get, given overhead savings. Currently you can only claim a tiny tax rebate from the government.
These are the main potential holes in the New Statesman claim. They include the costs of heating your house during the day in their work from home costs. No-one I know who works from home and has done for years puts the heating on. They sit in several layers of clothes and type fast. They may put the heating on for an hour if the weather gets really cold or grab a hot water bottle. They say that it makes no sense to put the heating on just for one person. The problem is that no-one has bothered to even ask people who have homeworked for many years.
Moreover, there is no consideration of extra knock-on costs like childcare. I’ve been speaking to out of hours childcare people and demand is surely down since Covid. Part of this must be due to people working from home and being able to flex around school times. I know that’s what I did because after school clubs in rural areas are extortionate, particularly if you have more than one child. That’s not to mention the availability problem which is in part linked to demand and cost.
Next there is the associated cost of commuting – using the car is not simply about paying for petrol. It’s also maintenance costs. A set of new brake pads costs around 500 pounds. What if you pick up a coffee on the way into work? That will set you back nearly a fiver in some cases. What if you forget your packed lunch? It all mounts up. What if the train is delayed and you have to get a taxi to get to nursery on time [or incur a fine] – something that I have certainly had to do?
Then there is the general uncertainty of everything. What if the schools do go down to a three-day week due to energy costs? What if the teachers go on strike? The train strikes certainly look likely to continue. What if there’s flooding or any other manner of climate-related issues?
There are so many different potential circumstances and everyone has their own to add in. To suggest working from home is finished is absurd and ignores the complex realities of people’s lives. What about those caring for elderly relatives or children with special needs or mental health issues? We know that social care and education, particularly for children with special needs, have been hard hit by Covid and other factors, including the Brexit impact on staffing. What about how we tackle getting the rising number of people who are off work sick back to work – who make up the largest proportion of people who are economically inactive since Covid? How many might be able to work part time from home while they wait for the healthcare they need? What about those who can’t afford to retire who have to work a bit longer, but need more flexibility?
You cannot take one thing in isolation. Everything links to everything else. It’s a house of cards and it’s collapsing all around us. We just need to get through this winter, however we can, and people need support. The longer term demand and need for working from home will not go away in any event. Many of us did the maths a long time ago.