Homeworking is at the centre of various different arguments about the future of work and this week saw a number of reports about the back to the office debate.
There’s been a lot of news on the homeworking front this week, with City firm Schroders becoming the first major financial institution in the UK to tell staff that they can work permanently from home if they wish to and public equity company Carlyle telling staff not to come to the office for two weeks after using public transport. Carlyle is reopening its London office next month and is encouraging any staff coming in to avoid public transport. Return to the office is entirely voluntary.
Countless surveys show public transport is a key issue for many commuters who are able to work from home because any return to something approaching normal numbers – at least in the big cities – would mean social distancing was impossible without a great deal of staggering of journeys. This would, of course, mean extra resources. Even then it seems a logistical nightmare.
In the meantime, those businesses which rely on footfall in the major cities are struggling. Once again, it comes down to economic damage and its knock-on effects versus health fears as the infection rate begins to rise again. Is the preventive health impact of mass homeworking more important than the economic impact of reduced footfall in cities? Of course, it is not a straightforward struggle between health and wealth. The two are linked: if infection rates rise the economic impact of dealing with another mass outbreak will be immense and the NHS will be under huge pressure again.
Despite changes in our knowledge of Covid, one thing has remained constant – the most effective way of dealing with it and opening up the economy involves prevention through masks, handwashing and social distancing and knowing where the local outbreaks are and keeping a lid on them.
On the other hand, the longer people work from home the more likely it is that the working culture changes and becomes more flexible. Home working is not necessarily a panacea though. It can lead to a more blurred line between work and home, overworking and increased risk of burnout. As with all things, it depends on people’s circumstances, how it is done and whether individuals have more of a sense of control over how and where they work. Homeworking doesn’t work for everyone and for many the Covid-19 experience has highlighted the importance of the social side of working.
Despite evidence to the contrary, there is also still the old myth from some quarters that working from home is not really working. That comes through in some reports on remote working where furloughed workers are mixed up with remote workers amid exhortations to ‘get back to work’.
Reports this week also questioned how the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham can work effectively from her home in Canada. One writer asked how she could do her job if she was ‘eight hours behind her staff’. Of course, it depends on the nature of the job and how it is organised.
Another asked if you can do your job anywhere, can anyone do your job? This is not a new question. With globalisation, many jobs such as call centre work have been outsourced to other countries, but employers are increasingly recognising the value of local advisers with local knowledge. Nevertheless, a growing number are making local call centre jobs available on a work from home basis to give them access to a wider talent pool and to make it easier to cover anti-social shifts, given many people now want access to information at all times of day.
The world of work is changing and employers have to weigh up what works best for their workforce and their organisation. As workplaces become more automated and competition increases in the midst of recession, it will not just be cost-cutting that is behind decisions, although it is likely to be a major factor, but also productivity, innovation and adaptability and whatever drives those. The human side of work in many organisations may conversely become more accentuated as a result of technological change.