As someone who lives in a small studio in London, it comes as no bigger surprise than to myself to argue for the virtues of working from home (WFH).
Since Covid-19 kicked off, most of the nation has had a taste of WFH, and the issue of whether to continue with this format seems to have become as divisive as face masks.
On one hand, there are those who’ve enjoyed the experience. Getting to be around loved ones more, avoid the commute and even work in pyjamas has been ideal for them. Many have saved money in the process.
Others are not so enamoured with WFH. Perhaps they’re feeling cooped up in a small flat, constantly surrounded by X number of housemates, or simply miss seeing their colleagues. For those living solo, it can be an especially lonely experience.
The bad news for the Government is that the first camp seems to be dominant.
Indeed, a report by academics at Cardiff and Southhampton universities found that nine in ten workers would like to continue working from home in some form, with almost half wanting to work at home often or all of the time.
To counter this, Boris Johnson is to unleash a publicity campaign which will make the “emotional case” for mixing with colleagues and reassure people that “the workplace is a safe place”. Furthermore, there will be a new online tool to help people avoid overcrowded buses and trains.
It’s not surprising that the Government is keen to get things back to normal. In London the effects of WFH are obvious; the streets are much quieter, and everywhere that benefits from office workers is experiencing less custom. It is troubling, given the extent to which the city powers the economy.
In regards to these trends, Conservatives can do two things. They can try to re-engineer the situation, pushing to get employees back – which isn’t very conservative, incidentally – or they can embrace the way the market is going (which is).
Whether WFH is the best option in the grand scheme of things is immaterial, just as wondering whether social media is good for human interaction, or if children should play video games, or if dating apps are the best way to meet a partner.
The fact is that these things are here, and they’re here to stay. It could be said that lockdown has merely accelerated an inevitable situation, as WFH was already becoming commonplace before this strange year.
I confess that previously I had wanted the Government to get everyone back to their office as fast as possible. I could see the impact on London businesses and was concerned, but it was a recent trip to Deal – yes, really – that rather reset my thinking on the issue.
All the spending I did in that week opened my eyes to the less-talked about, positive effects of the pandemic. For all its evils, it has breathed new life into previously quieter parts of the UK. It’s not only the boost in domestic tourism that will help, but that more people will be wanting to move to new areas.
For too long this country has been London- and city-centric, which the Tories set about tackling with their “levelling up” agenda. Inadvertently, however, Covid-19 will help them achieve this; now that people can live and work anywhere, other parts of the UK will benefit and develop – needing more coffee shops, restaurants and so on to make way for a new influx of employees.
Some of these changes will be especially good for young people – though it may not seem so right now. For one, WFH gives them the option of moving to a more affordable location, where they can actually – heaven forbid! – even buy a house.
There’s also the advantage for young workers that choose to stay in London. The more that others head for different parts of the UK, the lower rental and house prices become in the city (thus meaning that they will eventually be able to WFH in bigger spaces – or even have extra income to go to a co-working space).
Of course, as WFH critics point out, it’s by no means a perfect system. You don’t get the collaborative effects of an office space; you don’t get to switch off from work as much, and interns and junior staff trying to go up the career ladder may struggle if they can only make an impression on Zoom. Yes, we need our cities to thrive.
And yet, what is there to do to change the situation? Some workplaces will go back, but many won’t – and the best thing is to try to roll with it. That isn’t only advice for the Government, but businesses too, which could even create a situation in which staff get to choose if they want to return or not – investing in co-working spaces if they can, to offer that option.
All in all, though, there is no point trying to force an issue that workers are, by and large, voting for with their feet. From the environmental advantages (less commuting) to the flexibility WFH can give to families, Tories should re-evaluate their take on the issue. By all indications, their “levelling up” agenda could be already underway.