Why I fear poor young people are hardest hit by the WFH habit: PwC boss warns social mobility will stall if we don’t return to the office
Over the past 18 months we have seen a huge change in the way we work as staff are confined to their homes. For many people this was the perfect working environment.
But by ‘many people’ I certainly don’t mean everyone. It’s been a struggle for the cafes and restaurants near our offices in the UK, not to mention the taxi drivers and dry cleaners.
Dig deeper among office workers themselves and the picture is mixed too. I had never worked from home before the pandemic, but we all learned about flexibility.
All the modern conveniences: Working from home can be very efficient and comfortable, if you have a spacious home, garden and study
So while I’m pretty much back in my five-day office week, I’m staying at home some days to save time on travel and other commitments.
But it is the exception rather than the norm. Among my demographics, that’s probably unusual. The park and cafes in my neighborhood are full of people squeezing in between phone calls. “I get so much more done at home,” is the common refrain.
And herein lies the problem. Working from home can be very efficient and comfortable if you have a spacious home, garden and study.
The reverse is true if you don’t. And those who don’t are most likely young people entering their careers, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
More than 3,000 of our employees come from what the Social Mobility Commission classifies as a lower socio-economic background, with a larger proportion being our younger employees.
This figure is based on the number of our people who disclosed the occupation of their highest-earning parent when they were 14. According to the committee, this is the best measure of the available background.
Not only is it easy to understand, but it also gets the highest response in testing. We’ve been collecting the data through employee surveys for a few years now. Now that the response rate has reached 80 percent, we have a good data platform to support our work to improve social mobility.
But since 20 percent of our people still chose not to disclose their backgrounds, and there will be new entrants since we collected the last data, the actual number from disadvantaged backgrounds is likely to be much higher.
That is one of the reasons why we felt it was so important to open our offices as soon as possible during the lockdown. Stories of people using ironing boards as desks in a flatshare were very real.
That’s why we’re investing more in offices, while making sure people have the flexibility to work from home some of the time if they want to. But it is not just about the interior design at home and whether people have space and tranquility. The main reason why young people, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, miss something is that they have fewer opportunities to learn from others, build trust and networks. It is not just our assumption, but it is what we hear from young people from disadvantaged backgrounds themselves.
You can’t read mood and body language or someone’s expressions on a screen and pick up the subtle signals that are asking you to check if someone is okay. It’s harder to make friends, find the right time to ask a question, meet people outside your team, and create friendships that last a lifetime or support personal resilience.
It’s the people with the most underprivileged start who can get the most out of the right network – and you need face-to-face interaction to build this.
Of course, nothing is easy, and while I know our employees want to spend more time in the office (two to three days a week is preferred among 22,000 people, so that’s our policy), this is tempered by the cost of commuting and all other expenses associated with office life.
There will also be challenges in an office for other parts of our workforce, including those who are more at risk for Covid or have disabilities. We need to make sure we don’t disrupt the playing field further by trying to level the playing field.
The only way we really know is by asking our people, through surveys and conversations. From there we can build knowledge and, hopefully, trust by giving everyone a voice and showing that we are listening. We need to make office life part of working life and available to everyone.