Is it time to go back to the office?
Are you going back to the office, staying at home, or something in between?
This summer has seen a mass ‘back to work’ migration, with employees finally returning to their desks after 18 months at home. But some companies are choosing not to bring their employees back in-house, whilst others are experimenting with hybrid approaches.
Back in March 2020, we sent the brightfive team to work from home for, what we thought at the time, was just a few weeks. Later that summer, with no end to the pandemic in sight, we decided to give up our office space. Since then we have been a fully work-from-home business. We now have a virtual office in York City Centre where we host clients and where our team meets in person every couple of weeks. We’ve no immediate plans to get back to a full-time office, but it’s not off the cards either. With so many conflicting benefits and drawbacks of each option, it's unclear which is the best model, for both employers and employees.
Working from home - the positives
Most of us who were working from home during the pandemic, felt grateful and fortunate to be able to keep working in safety, but now so many of us are vaccinated (nearly 90% of UK adults have had their first dose, and 75% their second, as of August) does that mean we’re all ready to go back to ‘business as usual’?
Perhaps not. For many, working from home has brought tangible benefits which they’re reluctant to give up...
As of 2019, the average commute time for a UK worker was 62 minutes (or 85 minutes in London). This places the UK as the 8th worst country in the world for work-life balance due to its long working hours and lengthy commutes. Whilst working from home, we found better things to do with that extra hour in the day, such as spending time with our loved ones, exercising, tackling pressing tasks, or just getting a little more precious sleep.
We’ve been saving money, too. A study by PR agency, Tyto, has revealed that working from home saves London commuters an average of 23.5 days per year in travel time. That works out at an average £10,020 in unpaid time. By not commuting, London commuters saved an average of £5,114 in travel costs.
And for those of us looking to reduce our individual climate impact, no longer needing to drive to work everyday (which is likely to be the majority of our weekly travel) is a significant draw.
Working from home can make it easier to take care of the myriad little tasks the average adult has to perform a day, outside the purview of their salaried job. A flexible work day (sans an hour of commuting) allows you to do the school run, to tackle a load of laundry, to be home for the Amazon delivery - all that dull but essential stuff of everyday life. It also allows for the important things which bring meaning and connection in life; to walk the dog, to be home in time for family dinner and bedtime stories, to boost your mood with a quick workout. This could also save stretched parents thousands in expensive childcare costs (as well as loving dog-parents - have you seen how much they charge for doggy daycare?!).
Access, inclusion and safety
Remote work has the potential to open up career opportunities to people previously excluded from many workplaces. Those with visible and invisible disabilities face numerous barriers to employment imposed by the typical office environment.
People living with conditions such as Autism and ADHD frequently find a noisy, communal office challenging. As one journalist, quoted in the Guardian explained, “Office spaces feel geared towards mentally well people and neurotypical people.” Working from home allows individuals to orient their workspaces to best suit their needs.
Many able-bodied and neurotypical people also face hostile office environments, which they may prefer to stay away from. A study in 2019 found that 70% of ethnic minority workers in the UK have experienced racial harassment at work in the last five years. For people facing racial discrimination and bullying, as well as those experiencing ill-treatment on account of their gender, sexuality, or a combination of these factors, the office is anything but welcoming.
Freedom to live anywhere
The pandemic saw a dramatic rise in people, of all ages, leaving big cities to be closer to nature and enjoy a better quality of life. In the summer of 2020, Rightmove saw a 126% increase in people considering properties in village locations. Those who have already fled the big smoke probably aren’t going to come running back willingly.
Minimised Covid risk
Oh, yeah, let’s not forget that pesky pandemic. The reason we all switched to work from home in the first place was to reduce the spread of Covid-19.
Offices have long been known to be hotspots for germ-spreading (how many colds, flus or stomach bugs have you picked up from a peaky co-worker?). As the FT reports, ‘people working in them took as much as 62 per cent more sick leave than those in more private spaces.’ Even with vaccination, breakthrough cases are on the rise, and although many workplaces are putting safety measures in place, with masks and social distancing no longer obligatory, the effectiveness of such measures may be curtailed.
So, why would anyone want to go back to the office?
Despite all the legitimately great stuff about home working, there are plenty of downsides. Without the company of our coworkers we get lonely and bored, without the structure and routine of the office workday we find ourselves either procrastinating or over-working. The office, it turns out, has a lot to offer, too.
Earlier this year, Society for Human Resources Management shared a survey of what remote employees miss about the office. The top response was ‘in-person workplace conversations (61% of respondents)’.
Offices are places where you can make friends for life, find love, or a ‘second family’. Or, more likely, they may just be places where you know a lot of people - some quite well, others not so well, some of them you like, others… not so much. What we may have previously taken for granted is that all those relationships are important. In the depths of lockdown, did you find yourself thinking fondly of the random guy in the shared kitchen who sometimes talks to you about the weather? Or the cleaner who you share a polite smile with on your way to your desk? Or the barista who used to make your morning coffee? Psychologists note that these sorts of microinteractions and ‘weak tie’ relationships are very important for mental wellbeing. Sociologist, Dr David Dozois states ‘They help us recognize that we’re connected to a bigger picture, a larger group, a sense of community.’
Keeping work at work
For some people, working from home has not brought about a healthier work/life balance - it’s done the opposite. A recent poll showed that half of professionals worked longer hours from home, with a quarter of those working an additional 10 hours per week.
Without the clear delineation between work and home life, it becomes harder to step away from the screen, and with the relative ease of booking in a Teams meeting, workers can quickly find they have been scheduled for eight back-to-back calls a day.
Once the work day is ‘done’, it can be harder to mentally unplug when working from home. Feeling ‘constantly on’ is common among remote workers - where the pressures and stresses of the workday bleed into leisure time. Going back to the office may be less about reclaiming the office itself, and more about reclaiming our homes.
Not all pandemics are created equal. For every person struggling with the loneliness of a silent, empty house, there is someone else desperate for a moment’s quiet to hear themselves think.
Home can be a very distracting environment - with kids, pets, partners, housemates, noisy neighbours, delivery people, dodgy internet connections all vying for our attention.
Why don’t we marry the best bits of home-working and the best bits of the office? Surely hybrid is the answer….right?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Aside from the logistical complications of implementing a hybrid set up, there is another potential drawback.
As a recent article by Forbes suggests, hybrid models could create a ‘dual-class workforce’ with those spending more physical time in the office reaping more recognition and reward.
We already know that those who work from home are likely putting in more hours, however there is a risk that despite this fact they are more likely to be overlooked and underappreciated by management...
‘Being out of sight and out of mind could adversely impact a remote employee’s long-term career growth. Questions will arise over whether remote workers receive the same level of training, attention, mentorship and guidance compared to the folks in the office. If the manager is in the headquarters, it's possible that they’ll favor the people who are always there, as they form strong bonds."
Data seems to suggest this theory holds water as, according to Forbes, people who worked from home were less than half as likely to be promoted.
So, what is the best option?
We wish there was a nice, neat answer. We, like many other businesses, are working it out as we go.
We’ve all definitely missed the office, and we’ve been regularly scheduling team meals and ‘work together days’ to try and bring back some of that much needed sense of togetherness. However, we’re not jumping at the thought of spending so much of our work week limping slowly through the heavy traffic in and out of York twice daily. Whatever the future may bring, we want to build flexibility into our working practices going forward.
Whilst the hybrid model does pose its own challenges, it still seems to be the most popular among workers. As one London CEO was quoted in the Evening Standard earlier this year:
"When we surveyed our staff, 80% of them wanted a hybrid. It means we need to be more deliberate in how we plan our time and in a way it’s maybe less flexible than just being at home or just being in the office, but I think everyone is happy to be back and to replenish that well of human contact.”
Each business will, of course, have to find its own way forward. The return to in-person work presents an opportunity for employers to stake stock and implement policies which put employee wellbeing at the centre of their approach. Let’s not miss it.