Accept It: The Home Working Revolution Cannot Be Stopped

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So here we go again…Yet another week where home working has been front page news.

This time, it was all due to comment from the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak. He stated that being in a traditional office was “really important” for younger people, implying that they could harm their career prospects if they were home based.

Go back to the office newspaper headline

This isn’t the first time Sunak has attempted to “intervene” in the future of work. Back in March, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, he suggested that workers might “quit if forced to stay at home.”

The trouble is, there’s a LOT of data out there that suggests this stance is way out of step with reality.

Back in August 2020, our own HomeWorkingClub survey revealed that 29% of people would, in fact, be willing to quit and change employer if they weren’t permitted to continue working from home.

Since then, many other surveys have posed the same question. In May, the New York Post reported that 39% of people would quit rather than be forced back to the office.

Perhaps the most striking study was one from career platform, Blind, reported on by Forbes. Their survey asked over 3000 employees at high profile US companies whether they would rather continue to work from home or take a $30,000 pay increase for returning to the office. A staggering 64% said they’d forego the money to continue to work from home.

Source: Blind

The internet is littered with similar studies. But one thing I didn’t find during a protracted research session was a single one to support the assertion that people would quit if they couldn’t go to the office. I’m happy to stand corrected if somebody wants to send me one.

The Hybrid Option

Before I go any further, I want to make very clear that I’m not saying “the office is dead.” Nor am I suggesting that we should all spend the rest of our careers shut away in our home offices losing our interpersonal skills.

Only yesterday, I was in a project meeting (conducted via Microsoft Teams). Although – so far – we have managed every step of the project remotely – with no issues whatsoever – I was strongly advocating for a week of face-to-face time, with everyone in the office together, once we begin the implementation. It will be valuable in many ways, such as ensuring the right chemistry and culture, and fostering a strong team spirit for the work ahead.

But further along the road, plenty of the work can be done remotely. In fact, I’d argue that much of the “deep work,” requiring focus and concentration, lends itself far better to home working.

In a Telegraph interview, Sunak said that “you can’t beat the spontaneity, the team building, the culture that you create in a firm or an organisation from people actually spending physical time together.” 

I don’t disagree. I can think of plenty of occasions where great ideas have come from in-person meetings, and it’s helped to have everybody sparking off each other when thrashing out the details of a project. But I also know that once those meetings are over, it’s often far easier to concentrate and do the actual work back at home or alone in the hotel room.

The majority of companies already realise this – and the data backs that up. 70% of companies contacted by Mercer in May said that “a blend of in-person and remote working will be the new normal.”

What’s Really Going On Here?

The data is compelling: Not only is it clear that the majority of employees have no desire to go back to the pre-Covid “normal,” it’s also apparent that most businesses accept that reality too.

So, with that in mind, why is the UK Chancellor making incendiary statements clearly intended to suggest that the trend is somehow…wrong?

Well, this is the part where I have to be cautious not to nail my political colours to the mast! So let’s stick to the facts:

City A.M. reports that “footfall in central London in recent weeks is still only around 34 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.” This is despite there no longer being any real Covid related restrictions in the UK. Anecdotally, while London no longer feels like the ghost-town it did in lockdown, it’s clearly nothing like it once was.

Obviously there are certain businesses this causes real trouble for, such as the city bars, the restaurants and the sandwich shops. Most significantly, the situation impacts the property investors that lease out not just the shrinking offices, but the premises for all the businesses that serve the office workers.

This is far from exclusive to the UK. In central New York, landlords are being left with vast empty spaces, as the finance and tech firms no longer need them. Companies still need an office to support hybrid working – but it’s likely most can make do with something much smaller.

This reality is seriously hitting the property companies’ bottom lines. As reported by The Guardian, one property investment firm, Capital & Counties, has had 5% of its portfolio value wiped out since the start of the year. This is on top of a 27% drop during 2020. (The fact it’s all still worth £1.7bn probably limits the level sympathy from the average “person on the street!”)

So, going back to the question of why the Chancellor would advocate for a wholesale return to the office when it’s abundantly clear neither the firms not the people want it – well, I’ll just leave this here:

FT Headline about property donors

The Writing On The Wall

I can’t help but think that Rishi Sunak’s posturing is rather futile. It sparks a debate, but a debate that the data suggests has already been won. If anything, this out of step attitude will only lead people to ponder his true motivations.

What does sadden me about this is that being fixated on getting things “back to normal” wastes time and energy that could be spent on innovating and making things better.

The UK’s train companies (perhaps surprisingly!) have been a step ahead here, releasing “flexible season tickets” for people only commuting part time. (Yes, there’s been some controversy over the pricing, but that’s really not the point).

Instead of pushing against the tide, I’d far rather see the government thinking about the positives, such as the huge environmental benefits of less commuting, the opportunities for independent businesses and high streets in smaller towns and cities, and the benefits of a society being able to enjoy better work / life balance.

Train commuters

Exceptions To The Rule

Just before I wrap this up, I want to just touch on some clear exceptions to the rule.

First off, let’s be clear that I appreciate there are plenty of jobs that cannot ever be done remotely. The nature of this debate is such that it’s always about “white collar” office jobs. I don’t want anybody thinking that I don’t realise that many people don’t have the luxury of the home working option.

Lockdown brought into sharp focus exactly which jobs are truly “essential,” so don’t think I don’t always have that in the back of my mind when discussing these things.

But going back to the issue at hand, there are some companies that – rightly or wrongly – remain committed to an office environment. Reality TV figure Lord Alan Sugar has been one of the most vocal on this, saying “some people may have become complacent liking this new style of working. Well those folk will never work for me.”

We have to accept that every business leader gets to dictate the culture of their company. In some industries, it’s hard to dispute that in-person working is a better fit for everything from networking to innovation.

Apple HQ

Apple is a a good example of this, and is apparently one company keen to get people back to its HQ. I find this easier to understand, given the secrecy under which the company works on new products. Apple has also offered various home-based positions since long before Covid, so it’s clearly not against remote work, per-se.

But Apple is a bit of an outlier here, being one of a handful of companies with an HQ many people dream of working at.

There’s also the fact that some people do prefer to travel to an office. As was often said during lockdown, it’s easy for those of us with gardens and home offices to fail the comprehend what home working is like for people sharing small city flats.

The Best Talent Gets to Choose

Companies without the cachet (and space-age HQ) of Apple would be well advised to take a grounded approach to all of this.

Yes, they are free to take a binary, “everybody back” approach, and dictate that all staff must be office based. However, skilled employees also have the freedom to look elsewhere for work.

And when they do, they will find an increasing abundance of choice. Not only are there more and more remote first companies nowadays, with cultures and working practices built around remote working, there are also an increasing number of “normal” companies now willing to entertain the prospect of home-based and hybrid arrangements.

Last night, I heard that a family member had accepted a new job. My first question was how flexible it was (for those interested, he’s expected to appear in the office once per week, and is free to work from home the rest of the time.)

It’s a question everybody asks now. Companies (and politicians) need to accept that a parent may no longer readily accept that they only get a quick bedtime kiss with their children if the train is on time; Employees now want to know why they have to spend upwards of ten hours per week paying to sit bumper-to-bumper on a busy motorway.

Things have changed. The sooner the “powers that be” accept that, the better.