RUTH SUNDERLAND: Working from home should be wise


Covid-19 has spawned a plethora of new opposing tribes, but one of the deepest rifts is between evangelists working from home and those eager to return to the office.

The laptop in the attic is so ubiquitous that it has acquired its own acronym: WFH, or work from home.

Inevitably, there is a section of the workforce, largely the middle class, well paid and professional, who have no desire to take over WAW – work at work – never again.

Lifestyle change: the laptop in the attic is so ubiquitous that it has acquired its own acronym: WFH, or work from home

The Warriors of the WFH must be careful what they wish. The idea that there may be a mass exodus of the middle class from the office is short-sighted, and the obsession with its own work-life balance seems lenient when thousands of Covid layoffs hit us like a freight train. .

This newspaper has identified 130,000 jobs facing the ax since March and the total is swelling daily. The desktop model could certainly be improved. Based on a suburban man, it is off limits to many, including those who cannot afford to live near city centers, women, and others with family responsibilities.

If Covid-19 is a catalyst for smart and flexible working practices, so much the better.

The risk is that this is interpreted as prioritizing lifestyle privileges over productivity and the broader interests of the economy.

It is important, I think, that we use the word “work” to mean a place as well as an activity. Like it or not, WAW is often more productive. The most obvious point is that the WFH will kill the commuter and office trade, causing 1,500 job losses at WH Smith, as well as 1,000 job losses and reduced hours at Pret a Manger. But it can also hurt customers. Look at the banks, many of whose employees are at home, which means branches are only open for reduced hours.

This is the immediate damage. Further, prosperity depends on our creative and innovative spark, which burns the most when brilliant people come together. Some of us would like to keep our homes as a personal and family haven: with colleagues Zooming into your kitchen, work has taken over the sanctuary.

Still, there is little reason to return. Facebook said its staff did not need to return until next July. I have spoken to many GMs over the past two weeks and all have told me that the vast majority of their staff are still home with no firm return date.

Everyone is talking about a “hybrid” model, maybe all the time, with some people in the office and some not. Pity the poor managers who have to know who is where.

In the short term, many employers want to protect health and cannot get everyone back while maintaining social distancing. They worry about the risks of a second wave and the lack of childcare.

But it seems there is little impetus to bring anyone back. A CEO I spoke to last week seemed quite happy with the fact that 99% of his employees are still at WFH.

This corporate attitude, the mere lack of will on the part of the top to bring people back, is quite striking and, it seems to me, disturbing.

Big business can save big by getting rid of expensive downtown real estate. And if staff are permanently working in cheaper parts of the UK, employers will soon be looking to cut pay, as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg suggested.

The next logical step from an employers’ perspective is to hire remote workers in even cheaper locations – anywhere people can speak English will do.

Maybe we’ll come back to the sunny days of lockdown, to high class issues like plotting the best work-life balance, as bogus warfare before real economic bombs fell. The future for many may not be a good time for the WFH, but the harsh reality of the WNA: working nowhere.

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