Written by Olivia Leishman
As each day brings yet more restrictions around the UK and fewer people are feeling safe enough to leave their home, the future of work is being closely examined. Working from home soared from six per cent pre-pandemic to 43 per cent of employees by April this year. And as both the UK government and Welsh ministers continue to advise to work from home where possible, the fate of office life is uncertain. Could this pandemic result in the end of the UK office?
After the initial shock for many of adapting to a work from home set up, abandoning the office has brought a new way of thinking, and a whole host of new found benefits that many are eager to keep for the long run. Ditching the dreaded daily commute, saving hundreds from minimal to no travel expenses, and an increased flexibility in balancing home and work life have proven to be some of the biggest perks. Improvements to mental health have also been widely recorded as for some, bringing work home can mean avoiding overcrowded offices and more access to fresh air. A recent report published by Cardiff and Southampton university academics in August 2020 looked into the shift to home working both before and during this year’s lockdown. It suggests that nine out of ten people who were working from home during the pandemic would like to continue doing so in some capacity. The majority of people surveyed found themselves to be just as productive working from home if not more than when in the office, compared to only 30 per cent of people who felt that their productivity had decreased. Additionally with only 13 per cent of UK parents wanting to return to the ‘old’ way of work, the realisation is that many employees can successfully work remotely, and are calling for a shake up of the ‘nine to five’ way of life.
However the prospect of working almost exclusively from home doesn’t come without its own issues. A lack of suitable workspace, the potential cost of setting up a designated work space, and accommodating many homeworkers in a shared household particularly with young people, are all factors that need to be considered. And while some of the biggest companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter have been providing allowances for employees of up to £750 each to cover working from home related expenses, this cannot be guaranteed for many smaller companies and businesses. Bringing work home is also just not possible for many job sectors, such as those working in manual and physical labour jobs. It’s largely only been feasible for those considered to be working in white-collar jobs, particularly in London and the South East of the UK which saw the highest percentages of people working from home.
So what could the future of work look like? It seems likely a hybrid solution of office and home-based working could become the new normal. The importance of increased flexibility allowing people more control in how they balance home and work life could be the key thing to take away from this year. The forced restructure of work, shaking up traditional work routines and transforming the daily grind, could become an unexpected positive take-away from the impact of covid-19. In this age of digitisation and increasing online interconnectedness, it seems only logical that dated systems of the rigid ‘nine to five’ be up for review. Especially now, as it’s been proved that remote working is able to match and even exceed the productivity and economic success of office-based working, it would seem senseless to revert entirely back to our ‘old normal’. For the first time, the employee might be the one who gets the larger say in how we conduct our working lives, allowing for a way of work that is better tailored to the individual. And with 50 of the UK’s biggest employers having no plans to permanently return staff to the office, the future of work could also have a significant impact on our city centres and high streets. As seen by photos, areas of once bustling designated business areas are now being likened to ‘ghost towns’. Instead it’s our local economies and communities of independent businesses, that are experiencing an economic boost and increased appreciation. Could a long-term shift to working from home also cause for a radical change in how our cities are designed?
Coronavirus has marked a clear turning point in the way in which we think about the organisation of work. So for now it seems evident that remote working in some form will be here to stay. No it doesn’t work for everyone and yes there are still benefits of the traditional office but it’s likely working from home will become a more common feature in the future.