John Humphrys - WFH: Blessing or Curse?

September 02, 2022, 5:00 AM GMT+0

The real horrors of covid may be receding into the background of our memories, but one of its greatest impacts has yet to be felt. It can be expressed in three letters. WFH. What started as a simple instruction from a government desperate to try to slow down the spread of a terrifying new disease has become a phenomenon that threatens to destroy the working culture of the nation with devastating repercussions for our economy. Or, at least, that’s what its opponents say. Its supporters say the precise opposite. They believe it will hugely improve the lives of millions and ultimately boost the nation’s productivity. What’s your view?

What is not in dispute is that WFH has arrived and it seems it’s here to stay. Big time. Only a few days ago Jacob Rees-Mogg, the cabinet minister responsible for government efficiency, announced that the government is planning to sell off £1.5billion worth of government offices in London even as he tries desperately to persuade civil servants to return to their desks. Back in April he had toured his own offices leaving little notes on the desks of those staff who were not frequenting the office. The notes read: “Sorry you were out when I visited… I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon. With every good wish”.

One of the absent workers was quoted in The Guardian a few days later saying: “I’d love to tell him where to shove his good wishes. We’ve all been working our socks off throughout the pandemic and now he’s leaving notes implying we’re not working if we’re not at our desks.” The latest statistics suggest she was not alone.

The Office for National Statistics calculates that about a third of the UK’s office-based workforce is still working from home with most intending to continue doing so for at least part of the week. It’s called “hybrid” working, and it is now regarded by government statisticians as the “new normal”. Fewer than one in ten say they want to return to their desks five days a week.

It is now four months since Boris Johnson told civil servants that they needed to "show a lead and make sure everyone gets back to work”. He told the Daily Mail, which has been running a campaign against creeping WFH culture, that his “experience of working from home is you spend an awful lot of time making another cup of coffee and then, you know, getting up, walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese, then walking very slowly back to your laptop and then forgetting what it was you’re doing”.

But the statistics suggest his plea, like Mr Rees-Mogg’s little notes, have fallen on deaf ears. The statisticians say the most common reason given for home working was that it had become part of workers’ normal routine. They had “adopted home working long term”.

Rees-Mogg has sought solace by claiming that moving civil service jobs out of London would bring its own benefits by “giving civil servants a better quality of life and helping economic growth outside the capital. We are cutting the cost of the public estate so that we can return money to the taxpayer. All spending on government property needs to be justified.”

The trade unions are not impressed. The general secretary of the FDA union, Dave Penman, representing senior civil servants, said that the private sector had “embraced hybrid working, recognising the efficiencies it delivers and competitive edge it gives to employers in a tight labour market.

‘Meanwhile, the luddites in Cabinet insist on micro-managing the Civil Service, which will only deter good people from joining while simultaneously demotivating those already there.”

Figures compiled by Google’s Mobility report have shown that British workers are far more reluctant to return to their desks than their European counterparts. More than 20% of those who normally commute have stayed at home compared with pre-pandemic levels. In Germany, by contrast, it’s only 7%.

The big question – yet to be resolved – is whether hybrid working is good for productivity and, in the long run, good for the economy. Plus, of course, good for the staff. The Guardian reports that Nick Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University in California, has been studying the efficiency of home working since well before the pandemic struck. He says the science shows working from home makes staff not only makes them more productive – it also makes them happier.

“Many bosses want everyone back in the office every day because they think that staff are most efficient when all are in together,” he says. “All this stuff Rees-Mogg and Boris [Johnson] are saying about people not really working properly unless they’re in the office is disproved by the research.”

Back in 2015, he published research showing that in a study of 16,000 call centre staff, those who worked from home were 13% more efficient than their office-based colleagues. And the paper the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that the WFH team were more productive because they took fewer breaks, were sick less often and did not get distracted by tea breaks and so-called “water-cooler” moments.

Many bosses, however, argue that when they have their staff in their sight they are more productive. Video calls don't really work either, they say, because of the endless distractions at home and it’s harder to collaborate and be creative with colleagues over endless video calls. Many workers, however, say they get much more done at home without gossiping and other office distractions.

Three quarters of those polled by the ONS said working from home has improved their work-life balance, as well as allowing greater flexibility for working parents and big savings on commuting (in money and time).

There is, though, an age divide which might prove to be significant in the longer run. Younger people are more likely to be keen on going into work and so are those who have been hired recently. Older people who’ve been in their jobs longer are more keen on hybrid working.

Government ministers broadly acknowledge that WFH is not wrong in principle. But what about private industry and commerce?

The Guardian quotes a survey by the flexible office space provider Regus, which found that 69% of companies are planning to reduce their office space, which suggests that they have accepted that hybrid working is here to stay. The City of London has announced plans to “repurpose” office buildings left empty by the pandemic into at least 1,500 new homes by 2030. That’s a significant increase on the current 7,850 residential units and marks a sharp change in direction. Just seven new homes were built in the Square Mile between April 2017 and March 2018.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC), the unions’ umbrella body, has warned that working from home risks creating a “new class divide” as frontline workers in supermarkets and hospitals, mechanics and other customer-centric jobs do not have the option to work from home. Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, says: “Everyone should have access to flexible working. But while home working has grown, people in jobs that can’t be done from home have been left behind. They deserve access to flexible working, too. And they need new rights to options like flexitime, predictable shifts and job shares.”

The ONS has uncovered another interesting statistic. Almost a quarter of workers earning £40,000 or more are still working from home five days a week and a further 38% are in a hybrid pattern, splitting their time between the office and home. But just 6% of people earning £15,000 or less are working from home every day, and only 8% have hybrid working privileges.

So where do we go from here?

Victoria Robinson, a partner at PwC, who advises firms on adapting to WFH and hybrid working, says it’s unrealistic and unwise for employers to try to force workers back to the office full-time. She says: “This is not a temporary blip; the pandemic has led to a permanent change in working practices and the office as a form of control is gone for ever,” she says. “We’re in the midst of a ‘great resignation’, with more than a fifth of workers expecting to change jobs in the next year.

“The war for talent has well and truly arrived,” she says, and it is employers who have to make sure they have an “attractive employee value proposition” to retain and attract the best workers. “Employees are telling us in one of the largest ever surveys of the workforce that what they really want is more flexibility,” she says. “Granting that keeps staff happy.”

PwC was one of the first big companies to give staff a cash incentive of £1,000 to encourage people to come back to the office last autumn and the firm is now promoting an “empowered flexibility” model in which employees are expected to spend 40-60% of their time “co-located with colleagues”. All of its 22,000 UK staff have also been given Friday afternoons off throughout the summer.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development warns that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Claire McCartney, their resourcing and inclusion adviser, says “many employers are reporting productivity improvements”, but some have a less favourable view. “Companies and employees need to work together to find the right balance.” This is the time to get teams all to agree on “some principles of how much home working is appropriate”.

Many international firms, including the big global banks Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, are not giving into hybrid working without a fight. But some have struggled to enforce the policy and have been forced to relent over fears that they will lose some of their top talent.

So where do you stand in this vitally important debate? Are you working from home and, if so, how much of your time is spent at your desk in the office? And if you are being forced to pitch up for work do you envy those who take the odd day off? Or maybe more than just the odd day? And if you do spend much more time at home are you missing your time with your old colleagues? Or, perhaps, regretting that you must spend so much time with your family!

Do let us know.

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