Working from Home is Good for Noone
Picture the scene. An eager Head of People waits outside the Founder’s office. It’s her first big face-to-face meeting since lockdown and she’s a little nervous about actual human contact. At 10am on a Monday the vast open-plan office is deserted, though her boss has been coming in throughout the crisis, and sometimes taking videos of himself working at his desk and putting them on the company intranet for all to see.
Our exec has a big presentation to make – one that she feels is radical but also sensible. From now on, a brightly coloured PowerPoint proposes, all members of staff will work from home. Permanently. The Company will save money on office space. Staff will be more productive. Employees will save money on everything from travel, to childcare. The entire team is aware that the Company faces an uncertain future, the majority are on furlough, and she hopes this will be an important initiative to reduce cost and save jobs ‘going forward’.
The big man looks up and smiles wolfishly through the plate glass door, beckoning her in. She tries not to flinch when he deliberately reaches out to shake her hand. Given his past record on personal hygiene, she’s pretty sure he’s been nowhere near a bottle of hand sanitiser since the crisis began. And she’s dropping in the shopping for her grandmother on the way home.
The Founder’s face returns to impassive-mask-mode as she works her way through the presentation, further unnerved by the lack of any questions or feedback. The rousing conclusion she’d hoped for – where the results of a survey of staff showed that 76% of them would prefer to continue to remain safe at home for the foreseeable appears to echo hollowly in the room.
Long pause. Finally, he speaks. “Thank you very much for clarifying the situation. If what you say is true, and there is no value in physically working together in an office environment, the logical conclusion is I should fire everybody in the business and replace them with people in Bangalore who are better and would work for a third of the price. This would seem an excellent outcome. In fact, I am grateful to you and accept your proposal – please pull together the plan for restructuring and redundancies by Friday, I have a board meeting next week and I will want to communicate this with a timeline.”
A version of this meeting actually happened last week in at least one company I am aware of. In reality, it’s probably happened in many more as the nation nervously confronts the post-Lockdown world.
As with so many aspects of Lockdown and Covid-19, there is a unchallenged orthodoxy growing around the benefits of Working from Home. This week NatWest Group confirmed that all 50,000 of its non-branch staff would continue to work from home into 2021. Many other mega-corporates have announced similar plans. Sector WhatsApp groups buzz with photos of deserted commercial districts. I went for lunch in Canary Wharf on Thursday last week and saw a total of 10 people on my walk across the estate from the tube station to Crossrail.
The truth is that working from home ain’t good for anyone. The owners of restaurants and pubs in residential areas may be rubbing their hands together and even seeing growth in LFL sales at present as WFHers and Furlough-ees spend the money they saved in April and May – but all must also fear the impact of the impending jobs apocalypse on trade.
A friend who advises big corporates on nurturing culture has run research in the past quarter the implication of which is that companies that keep their teams at home will grow more slowly than those that return to the office. The reason is simple, culture cannot exist virtually, and the callow trainee who in normal times is a future leader has no access on Zoom to the company’s social capital. And he or she won’t meet their future life partner at after-work drinks on a Thursday night.
The catastrophic social, economic and cultural impact of this cannot be understated. What do we do with 5m unemployed? What of the mental health of those who remain in work, staring at a screen in isolation? What do we do with the City of London and Canary Wharf if there’s noone there? What happens to the restaurants and pubs there, and the companies and teams that operate them?
Working from home may have been an unavoidable stop-gap in a national crisis, but it is an insidious, evil idea which will cause the equivalent devastation of UK middle class communities that outsourcing manufacturing caused our working class in the 1980s. And it won’t make the companies that do adopt it successful. This madness must stop – the government has to create incentives for people to return to offices and the stigma around venturing out of the home must be replaced with the explanation of the risks to health a livelihood of those that stay there.