With Plan B restrictions due to be phased out this week, including the guidance for people to work-from-home (WFH), much of the nation is thinking about the return to the office and what this means for them. Already there have been signs that some workers are dragging their feet, with civil service unions criticising the plans.
Overall, WFH has been something of a divisive issue. While the majority (43 per cent of Britons) believe that it was right for the Government to end guidance here, a hefty 38 per cent disagreed. Conservatives were more likely to back the idea than Labour supporters.
So, almost two years after the UK went into lockdown, what can we take away from the working from home revolution? Was it a success?
Perhaps the most obvious advantage of working is that it has allowed people to re-locate to completely new destinations. Huge numbers moved out of London and other cities during the initial stages of the pandemic, in pursuit of more space. It lowered rents in built-up areas (albeit temporarily) and created something of a natural “levelling up” effect as economic activity in Britain was completely redistributed.
Moreover, many people have enjoyed the ability to spend more time with their loved ones. Maybe – without sounding too gender stereotypical – this explains why women have been bigger proponents of WFH than men, according to research by YouGov, more able to juggle childcare responsibilities with their career. Its survey found, in addition to this difference, that 50 per cent of women want to WFH again in the future compared to 25 per cent before the pandemic. Without the commute or having to get ready in the morning, it’s easy to see how this creates a better work/life balance.
Worldwide, WfH has produced numerous other benefits for people. Some of these have been outlined by YouGov in a survey of Americans. It found that people liked the following:
- No commute (68 per cent)
- Flexible hours (63 per cent)
- Ability to dress casually (55 per cent)
- Ability to do small household tasks while working (52 per cent)
- Ability to socially distance (51 per cent)
- Spending more time with family/household members (39 per cent)
- More autonomy with work (36 per cent); and
- increased productivity (32 per cent).
So what could possibly go wrong with this format? Well, one criticism of WFH is that, far from ensuring family time, it has increased many people’s workloads. On a survey by Hays, 52 per cent of workers said that they had been working longer hours than they had before Covid. Around 40 per cent of the respondents even said that they had worked during their annual leave.
Another, less anticipated, downside of the WFH revolution is that it led to an increase in fraud. One paper today reports that eight in 10 mid-sized businesses in the UK experienced this criminal activity in 2021, up from 60 per cent in 2020. They lost an average of £233,000.
WfH has caused economic issues elsewhere. With more people staying in, that means less commuters/ workers frequenting businesses across Britain. New analyses show that some of the worst affected have been hairdressers (which saw a 50 per cent increase in customers cancelling over Christmas) and the hotel and restaurant sector (45 per cent).
Maybe the worst part of the WfH revolution, however, is that – as with all elements of the Coronavirus lockdowns – it can exacerbate social inequalities. It’s fairly obvious that anyone who enjoys their home situation, for whatever reason – be it, a nice family life or comfortable/ large living space – is going to be a bigger advocate of more time there.
Moreover, far from alleviating the housing crisis, as a lot of people (including myself) predicted in the initial stages of the pandemic, WFH actually seems to have made things worse in another sense. Property prices have risen around the country, helped along by the Stamp Duty holiday.
Research by Hamptons, the estate agent, shows that Londoners bought over 112,000 homes outside the capital last year (an increase of 62 per cent compared to 2020). That is a total of £55 billion spent on homes outside London. In short, it means that getting on the property ladder is even harder for Generation Rent (many of whom bank on the fact they’ll be able to buy outside major cities).
Was WFH a good model? Looking at the pros and cons, it’s pretty difficult to make a judgement either way, and easy to see why the polls are so split. It clearly has transformed many people’s lives and there are definitely elements that should stay (giving people flexibility to spend more time with their families), but decision makers can look out of touch when they fail to understand the downsides. Without fully taking these into consideration, they can easily find themselves with an all-together different set of issues to “level up”. Either way, the last two years have given us plenty to think about, in regards to the future of work.