The Home Working Backlash Begins

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Governments are panicking. 

On both sides of the Atlantic, the powers that be are realising the extent to which long-term remote working could impact city centres, and the wider economy. 

But there’s bad news for those trying to force the genie back into the bottle. The vast majority of research, including our own, indicates that those trying to reimpose the “old normal” are fighting a losing battle.

The results of our recent survey show that most people think there’s no going back to the way things were:

  • 87.82% of people said they believed the working world has “changed forever.”
  • 90.37% believe that the Covid-19 pandemic has removed barriers to working remotely. 

Other research backs this up. A recent BBC report cites a study saying that nine out of ten people who’ve been working remotely in lockdown wish to continue “in some form.”

While these figures deliver a conclusive verdict, what was even more eye-opening is the lengths people are prepared to go to to ensure they can continue to work from home. More detail on that below, but first, let’s look at what governments are so worried about.

The Economic Cost

There’s no denying that there IS a huge economic cost to this. A PwC study, looking at the impact in the UK specifically, has found that this remote working trend could cost the economy over £15bn (c. $20bn) per year.

So who’s losing this money? The focus has been on restaurant and coffeeshop chains such as Starbucks and Pret a Manger, some of which have already announced redundancies. But there are plenty of other people who make a living via the commuting economy, such as office cleaners and security firms.

Aside from the money, there’s also the profound impact on the culture of city centres. Anybody who’s recently walked around the ghost-towns of the City of London or Midtown Manhattan will attest to this. 

The Reality

The issue facing governments is that lockdown has already demonstrated to companies of all sizes that they can operate effectively with a largely-remote workforce. 

Even as huge advocates for home working, we accept that there are certain tasks that can only be performed “on site.” Sparks of creativity and inspiration often come from face-to-face collaboration, and networking over Zoom, let’s face it, isn’t the same. 

But imaginative companies are already far along the track of working out hybrid arrangements that facilitate that collaboration. Furthermore, for now at least, office environments don’t resemble those that people remember. With social distancing and strict “Covid-secure” measures, the “buzz” of the office simply doesn’t exist in the way it once did. 

On top of all this, commuting costs time and money, and has a considerable environmental impact.

Let’s take London as an example:

An “all zones” monthly travel-card costs £253.50 ($336.88) per month. London commuters can generally expect to spend an hour each way commuting.

Consider an employee who’s just spent six months proving they work effectively at home. Is a company who values them really going to ask them to unnecessarily increase their risk of contracting a disease on public transport? Will it expect them to give up 40 hours and over £250 each month for that “privilege?”  

The answer should be pretty obvious.

Governments can bang on about the economy all day long, but people will put self-preservation first. They won’t put it all aside to save identikit city high streets with a Starbucks on every corner. 

Workers are Willing to Take Action…

As teased above, our recent survey also brought into sharp focus how much workers will take matters into their own hands if they’re not allowed to work remotely.

  • 37.80% of our respondents who don’t currently work freelance or remotely plan to change their
    industry in the next year so that they can do so.
  • 29.13% say that they would change employer in order to be able to work more from home.
  • 52% said they plan to take on a second job or side gig to support a more home-based lifestyle.

…And so are Companies

Forward-thinking companies are already several steps ahead of government on this. A few examples:

  • Facebook state that they expect 50% of employees to be remote in the coming years. Mark Zuckerberg highlights that recruiting only in areas near traditional offices means “cutting out” the potential of having team members with “different backgrounds and different perspectives.”
  • General Motors has extended remote working until June 2021, and announced long-term plans to create a “flexible work culture.”
  • Twitter has said that many of its staff can now choose to work from home “forever.”
  • BP is planning to sell its London headquarters, with its management reporting plans to switch to a “hybrid work style.”

It’s not just corporates making these changes. In an amusing example of irony, UK civil servants seem to be ignoring government calls to return to the office. Unions are threatening to strike if state employees are forced back with no good reason, and some departments are advertising home-based jobs.

The New Normal

I should make clear that isn’t taking an intentionally flippant stance on this issue. This is all deadly serious, both for the workers who depend on jobs in the commuter economy, and for the ministers having to choose between the economy and public health – though one could argue the latter shouldn’t be a choice. 

There is an interesting flip-side to this, which is that some smaller towns are absolutely thriving due to the home working boom. As an example, in my own small town there’s a constant emergence of new small businesses catering to those of us at home full time – selling everything from delivered self-care cosmetics packages to home-made lunches.  

These are the kind of businesses that were there for people during stock shortages in the early days of Covid-19. And the reality is that people care more about them than chains and corporate giants. For the past two decades, local residents have been priced out of city-centres, often by commercial landlords and those same big-name firms. Sympathy for them is thin on the ground.  

Covid-19 has accelerated a move towards remote working that was already underway. Governments now need to show some imagination, and start working on ways to boost the new economy instead of pining for the old one. That’s exactly what SMEs have been doing for the last six months. 

For more discussion on this topic, check out the latest episode of our podcast.

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