A flood of “censorious” newspaper coverage has stigmatised home working as a “collective sickness” that is slowing down the UK’s recovery from the coronavirus crisis, according to Guardian writer Hettie O’Brien.
Meanwhile, she notes: “An article in the Daily Mail reprimanded office workers for ‘boasting smugly about their exciting new “work/life balance” and the amount of money they are saving on their railway season tickets’, as if these were morally reprehensible acts.” (Mail Online, 27 August 2020)
She writes: “Beneath this scolding is a message directed at those who aren’t complying with the old status quo. The service economy in financialised city centres depends on the consumption patterns of office workers: commuting every day involves not just buying a sandwich or a coffee from Pret, but helping to prop up an entire system.
“Were it not for the vast numbers flowing out of stations every morning, the capacity to extract astronomical rents, both from commercial and residential properties, would shrivel – and city centres would no longer be soulless corporate landscapes where multiple franchises of the same chain restaurant can be found within walking distance of each other.”
O’Brien points out that a recent YouGov poll showed that workers’ appetite for returning to offices correlates with age, with 44% of over-65s in the pro camp, compared to just 25% of 25 to 49-year-olds. “That the over-65s, the age group least likely to be returning to the office, are the most enthusiastic supporters of this principle is unsurprising,” she writes. “The idea that you’ve got to be physically present to prove your value to your boss encodes an entire attitude to work – one firmly rooted in the Taylorist management doctrine of the 20th century, when employees were expected to conform to the objectives of the firm in exchange for a permanent contract.”
However, she notes, despite the media “paranoia” over home working, “many managers don’t really seem to care that people aren’t back in the office.”
Does the hostile stance to home working that is emanating from certain quarters of the press risk undermining support for even normative levels of flexible working, largely in the service of ulterior motives?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Much as we like to convince ourselves that so many business decisions are made on rational, evidence-based grounds, we know that on a regular basis, personal interests, preferences or agendas intervene. Not necessarily in an explicitly Machiavellian sense of trying to push through our own interests. But our understanding of any situation will be coloured – and why would it not be? – by our perception of what it feels like for us. And for so many people, what it feels like to work at home is obviously much more attractive than it is to others, for whom it feels better to work in an office.”
Cooper explains: “As our own research has shown, along with findings from the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management – whose director of insight Chris Moriarty spoke about some of these issues over the weekend – the older you are, the more likely you are to think that working from home is a great idea. While that conclusion challenges the figures that O’Brien cites, it can be readily interpreted through the lens that young people are more likely to be living with their parents. As such, they are less likely to have dedicated office space and will therefore feel less comfortable with working from home. Young people are also more likely to want to harness the social benefits of going to work – and again, our research shows that being with colleagues is really important to lots of employees.
“Which brings us on to the lobbying. The debate around which style of work delivers the greatest productivity is constantly evolving. But evidence does suggest that you can be every bit as productive working from home as you are in the office, or even more so. Obviously, in the longer term, we’ll have to start thinking about the effects of the reduction in the informal communication that happens in the workplace, which is difficult to quantify, but nonetheless important. But what we have at the moment, as O’Brien points out, are powerful lobbies trying to elicit feelings of shame in people over what happens to work better for them. And so, we’re being presented with the idea that there is a single truth: that one set of feelings is what everybody involved should recognise and subscribe to.
“Of course,” Cooper notes, “the vested interests here are immense. If our city centres change, that will have a huge impact on the ecosystems of which they are formed. We think about food outlets and transport, and they are hugely significant. We need only look at how much a season ticket costs compared to off-peak travel for an indication of how important the commuter is to the urban economy. And what will our cities look like if we don’t have people visiting them in hordes every single day. Will they become Wild West ghost towns? Or will we repurpose them into something else?
She adds: “We know that change is a force that organisations know they must engage with, but often find difficult to make happen in a sustainable, meaningful and kind way. It has become a cliché, but when one talks about change, the first thing that we tend to think about is resistance to that process. And right now, so many people want our city centres to stay as they are, because that framework is delivering what their business models require. So, when presented with the prospect of change, their reaction is to launch a series of urgent arguments for why things should stay exactly the same.
“That’s what’s going on here. Feelings driven by employees’ lived experience and personal circumstances are crunching up against resistance to change, amid a broader uncertainty over what our city centres will become if they are not full of expensive office space. Which, in many cases, would mean that they are empty at evenings and weekends.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on future readiness.