The great lockdown of 2020 will be remembered for many things, but most importantly in the world of work will be the fact that many workers worked from home. Now with lockdowns having been eased, companies and governments are finding that many workers may want to work from home for the foreseeable future. Is this a valid and productive solution or is it just going to lead to more issues?
According to The Economist, the latest data suggests that only 50% of people in five big European countries spend every work day in the office, whilst a quarter remain at home full time. This could largely be due to the residual fear of Covid-19 and the inconvenience caused by reduced capacity offices. The same data suggests that the average office can work with 25-60% of its staff while maintaining the two metre social distance between workers, usually mandated under law. Whilst offices that span more than five floors require elevator usage which requires long queues.
Businesses are trying to combat this by making their offices safer, some are switching off their recirculating air conditioning whilst others have installed hand sanitising stations and put up plastic barriers. However, what many employers are finding is that even if they make their offices safer, employees may still avoid coming in due to the fear of the commute via public transport. After all, roughly one quarter of commuters in New York City live 15 miles away from the office, which is too far to walk or cycle.
Of course, there are other reasons for why employees find working from home to be better than working in an office. A poll conducted in June, 2020 found that 44% of workers would take a 10% pay cut if they could work at home for a prolonged period of time, even after the pandemic ended. The main reason given for this was that those working remotely seemed to feel happier about their circumstances. Possible reasons for this include not having to commute as often, thus reducing the fear and anxiety that is often described as coming with such a commute. With people working from home, meetings appear to be reduced in length, allowing for potentially more productive conversations which do not drag on forever. Working from home also seems to have enabled workers to become more productive, with workers reporting that they have gotten far more work done at home than they had done in the office.
Another reason for why workers are so happy to remote work from home is that their employers seem to have by and large found the right ways to keep them motivated and happy. Research done by CNBC and Survey Monkey has revealed that the vast majority of employers have been on the ball when it comes to checking in with their workers. This includes management sending emails to staff informing them of services available in case they need them, whilst also involving them in decision making or explaining certain decision making processes. All of which has made employees feel more valued and has assured them that their bosses are considering their best interests and not just the profit margin. It was also noted in this research that management themselves have found remote working to be of benefit to them as it has made it easier for them to communicate in a more relaxed manner without the pressure and intensity of the office, something which appears to have translated to their workers.
However, for all their benefits there are downsides to working from home. Whilst some workers may genuinely have seen their productivity increase whilst working from home, there are chances that others only experienced an artificial growth in productivity. It is possible that workers could have upped their productivity for fear of being let go by their company, evidence from the CNBC and Surveymonkey research suggests many workers are worried about losing their job, particularly in the US. This could lead to workers pushing themselves to work at levels that may not be replicable should the pandemic pass and fears of immediate job losses also pass.
Furthermore, most studies conducted about lockdown productivity have relied on workers self reporting their productivity, and thus the reliability of the data gathered should be called into question. Workers are hardly likely to claim they’ve been less productive if they know their bosses may see their answers.
Add in the fact that some workers can’t really work from home due to a lack of space, and some workers feeling lonely due to a lack of company and the lack of camaraderie that usually comes about from working in an office, and you can see why some are worried about the mental health impact that a wider working from home trend could have on the populous.
Then of course there are wider political concerns over workers remaining at home past the pandemic. The UK currently lags behind many of its European brethren in the number of workers who have returned to work since lockdown ended, which has prompted nervous calls for government action from retailers and other high street businesses who rely on workers in offices visiting their shops during lunch breaks at work. A lack of workers in offices and the subsequent lack of business during the working week could worsen the economic difficulties currently facing many economies, the UK especially, which could lead to greater uncertainty and fear in the long term.
Ultimately, whether working from home becomes a permanent solution in the face of covid uncertainty will depend on how easy it is for workers and employers to come to some sort of agreement or understanding regarding conditions, pay and observation. It will also depend on how governments across the world adapt to changing circumstances, particularly when it comes to writing employment law, as current laws are not suitable for the possible change to working conditions.