Is the end of lockdown the end of the homeworking dream?

Morton Fraser_Innes Clark
Innes Clark
04 May 2021

This time last year working arrangements were turned on their head as we were all told, where it was possible to do so, to work from home.  

Businesses and employees made the change in admirably quick time and soon talk of homeworking becoming part of the "new normal" post pandemic was rife.  Statistics suggested that millions of workers were more productive when they worked from home and enjoyed a better work-life balance.  An Institute of Directors study of 1000 company directors suggested it was not just employees but also business leaders who recognised the benefits of homeworking, with 74% saying they would keep increased home-working hours after the pandemic ended.

But now, with the "work from home" order likely to be lifted in a few short months, the headlines appear to be changing.  In February, Boris Johnson dismissed the idea that lockdown will lead to a permanent shift towards home working and David Soloman, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, described home working as "an aberration" that the bank "intended to correct as soon as possible".  Even acknowledging that home working comes with greater challenges in a highly regulated environment such as banking, those are strong words.  The statistics on increased productivity have also been revisited with analysis from Harvard Business School and NYC suggesting it is less productivity increase and more working hours increase that has been seen, with the line between home and work having become not so much blurred but completely lost.  

There is also the question of homeworking fatigue - for every person relishing the lack of a commute there will be others keen to get back to the office environment.  Recent reports have also found that,  for many, the home doesn't provide a suitable physical working environment with more than 25% working on sofas or from the bedroom, leading to increases in musculoskeletal problems.  Other common problems include taking less exercise, feeling less connected to colleagues and experiencing disturbed sleep. 

Reality dictates that home working never really was a "dream" because it, along with all ways of working, has its own challenges.  The reporting also suggests that home working and the traditional office based employment are the only two options, whereas the reality is that they are just two ends of a spectrum.  It is flexible working in all of its many forms that should be the legacy of the pandemic - location, job share, compressed hours, flexitime, asynchronous working to name but a few. Businesses have now had the experience of making alternative ways of working possible for significant portions of the workforce and have found not only is it possible, but there can be significant benefits to it.  This experience will also, hopefully, see the end of the stigma sometimes attached to certain flexible ways of working - i.e. that it is only for working parents or for those who want to take a step back from their career.

Of course, not all businesses will be able to support home working post pandemic.  Those that rely on a more collaborative approach, who are heavily regulated or who have an apprenticeship type model where younger staff learn on the job may always require an office presence (albeit not necessarily 100% of the time).  However, for many, it now seems inevitable that flexibility, in whatever form that comes, will be the "norm" rather than the exception.  This is all the more likely in light of the Employment Bill (which was introduced pre-pandemic) proposing that flexible working be the default position in the future unless employers have good reason not to.  The direction of travel seems pretty clear.


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