Covid-19 has spawned a plethora of new opposing tribes, but one of the deepest divides is between the work-from-home evangelists and those who can’t wait to get back to the office.
The laptop in the attic is so ubiquitous it has acquired its own acronym: WFH, or working from home.
Inevitably, there is a section of the workforce, largely middle-class, well-paid and professional, that has zero desire to resume WAW – working at work – ever again.
Change of lifestyle: The laptop in the attic is so ubiquitous it has acquired its own acronym: WFH, or working from home
The WFH warriors should be careful what they wish for. The idea there can be a mass middle-class exodus from offices is shortsighted, and obsessing about one’s own work-life balance seems self-indulgent when thousands of Covid redundancies are bearing down on us like a freight train.
This newspaper has identified 130,000 jobs facing the axe since March and the total swells daily. The office model could certainly be improved. Based on a male commuter, it’s forbidding to many, including those who can’t afford to live near city centres, women and others with caring responsibilities.
If Covid-19 is a catalyst for intelligent, flexible working practices, all to the good.
The risk is this is interpreted to prioritise lifestyle privileges above productivity and the broader interests of the economy.
It’s significant, I think, that we use the word ‘work’ to mean a place as well as an activity. Like it or not, WAW is often more productive. The most obvious point is that WFH will kill the commuter and office trade, causing 1,500 job losses at WH Smith, along with 1,000 job losses and cuts in hours at Pret a Manger. But it can also hurt customers. Look at the banks, many of whose employees are at home, meaning branches are only open for reduced hours.
That’s the immediate damage. Further out, prosperity depends on our creative and innovative spark and that burns brightest when brilliant people come together. Some of us would like to keep our homes as a personal and family haven: With colleagues Zooming into your kitchen, work has invaded the sanctuary.
Yet there’s little drive to return. Facebook has said its staff needn’t come back until next July. I’ve spoken to many chief executives in the past two weeks and all have told me the vast majority of their staff are still at home with no firm date for return.
Everyone is talking about a ‘hybrid’ model, perhaps permanently, with some staff in the office and some not. Pity the poor managers who have to keep track of who’s where.
In the short term, many employers want to safeguard health and can’t have everyone back whilst maintaining social distance. They are worried about the risks of a second wave and lack of childcare.
But there seems little impetus to get anyone back. One CEO I chatted to last week sounded quite content that 99 per cent of his employees are still WFH.
That corporate attitude, the sheer lack of will from the top to get people back, is quite striking, and, it seems to me, ominous.
Large companies can make big savings by dumping expensive city-centre real estate. And if staff are working in cheaper parts of the UK permanently, employers will soon seek to cut their pay, as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has suggested.
The next logical step from an employers’ viewpoint is to hire remote workers from even cheaper locations – anywhere where people can speak English will do.
We may come to look back on the sunny days of lockdown, of high-class problems like plotting the best work-life balance, as the phoney war before the real economic bombs drop. The future for many may not be a lovely time WFH, but the harsh reality of WNA: working nowhere at all.