RUTH SUNDERLAND: The future may not be a good time for many WFH (working from home), but the harsh reality of WNA: working nowhere at all
- In the short term, many employers want to safeguard health and cannot get everyone back while maintaining social distance
- If Covid-19 is a catalyst for intelligent, flexible working methods, then all of that will benefit
Covid-19 has spawned a plethora of new opposing tribes, but one of the deepest dividing lines is between the work-from-home evangelists and those who can’t wait to return to office.
The laptop in the attic is so ubiquitous that it has been given its own acronym: WFH, or working from home.
Inevitably, some of the workforce, largely middle class, well-paid and professional, will not feel like returning to WAW – working at work.
Lifestyle change: the attic laptop is so ubiquitous that it’s got its own acronym: WFH, or Working From Home
The WFH warriors have to be careful what they wish for. The idea that there could be a massive middle-class exodus from offices is shortsighted, and being obsessed with one’s own work-life balance seems self-indulgent when thousands of Covid layoffs come down on us like a freight train.
This newspaper has identified 130,000 jobs at stake since March and the total is increasing daily. The office model can certainly be improved. Based on a male commuter, it is illegal for many, including those who cannot afford to live near city centers, women and others with care responsibilities.
If Covid-19 is a catalyst for intelligent, flexible working methods, then all of that will benefit.
The risk is that this will be interpreted to prioritize lifestyle privileges over productivity and the broader interests of the economy.
It is important, I think, that we use the word “work” to indicate both a place and an activity. Like it or not, WAW is often more productive. The most obvious point is that WFH will kill the commuter and office trade, causing 1,500 job losses at WH Smith, along with 1,000 job cuts and reduced hours at Pret a Manger. But it can also harm customers. Look at the banks, where most of the employees are at home, meaning branches are only open for limited hours.
That’s the direct damage. Beyond that, prosperity depends on our creative and innovative spark and it burns most strongly when brilliant people come together. Some of us like to keep our homes as a personal and family oasis: with colleagues zooming in on your kitchen, work has invaded the sanctuary.
Yet there is little drive to return. Facebook has said its staff won’t have to return until July. I have spoken to many chief executives in the past two weeks and they have all told me that the vast majority of their staff are still at home with no fixed return date.
Everyone is talking about a ‘hybrid’ model, maybe permanent, with some staff in the office and some not. Feel sorry for the poor managers who have to keep track of who is where.
In the short term, many employers want to safeguard health and cannot get everyone back while maintaining social distance. They are concerned about the risks of a second wave and the lack of childcare.
But there seems little incentive to get anyone back. A CEO I talked to last week sounded pretty pleased that 99 percent of his employees are still WFH.
That corporate attitude, the mere lack of will on the part of the top to get people back, is quite striking, and seems ominous to me.
Large companies can make big savings by dumping expensive real estate in the city center. And if staff are permanently working in cheaper parts of the UK, employers will soon try to cut their wages, as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has suggested.
The next logical step from an employers point of view is to hire remote workers from even cheaper locations – anywhere people can speak English is enough.
We can look back on the sunny days of lockdown, on top-notch problems like plotting the best work-life balance, like the fake war before the real economic bombs drop. The future may not be a good time for many WFH, but the harsh reality of WNA: not working anywhere at all.