Why we’re talking about . . .

Working from home: can it last? 

As lockdown eases, the future of the office is more uncertain than ever

The “popular cliché” last year was that the pandemic would speed up existing business trends, said The Economist. But that hardly does justice to the “massive rupture” it has caused to office life. Before Covid, Americans were spending just 5% of their working time at home; by spring 2020 the figure had soared to 60%. And as lockdown eases that’s probably the future for most of us. Companies are happy with working from home (WFH) because staff are more productive and work longer hours. Employees relish the new work-life balance: a new survey by one of Britain’s biggest accountants, Grant Thornton, found that nine out of ten of its staff wanted to work most of the week from home. Some may never even see the inside of an office again. The bank JPMorgan announced last week that 10% of its 255,000-strong workforce won’t be returning to their desks; HSBC is working on a new deal for its call centre workers after 70% reportedly volunteered to continue with WFH. 

But what works for some is misery for others, said Gene Marks in The Guardian. In a recent Microsoft survey, 37% of workers complained that their companies were “asking too much of them” when out of the office, and two-thirds “craved” more person-to-person time with colleagues. Alive to such concerns, Citigroup has announced “Zoom-free Fridays” to get people away from their screens, while LinkedIn is to give staff a week’s holiday to recover from the stresses of WFH. There’s a “generational divide” here, said Charlotte Pickles in the New Statesman. Staying home is all very well for the middle-aged executives with comfy home set-ups. It means no more long commutes, no more pesky requests from office juniors. But for those under 35 there’s no way “a kitchen table and noise-cancelling headphones” are a substitute for a decent workspace. And don’t be gulled into thinking WFH is all about satisfying the work-force. Shrinking costly office space is a handy way for companies to boost the bottom line. 

Actually, some of the big tech companies that first championed remote working are thinking twice about it, said James Clayton on BBC News. Google has announced that from September, employees wanting to work from home for more than 14 days will require special permission; Amazon says it plans to return to an “office-centric culture as our baseline”. Frankly, that can’t happen soon enough, said Matthew Lynn in The Daily Telegraph. Eventually, WFH becomes a “sterile” experience: those able to think creatively in solitude tend to be artists, not “commercially minded executives”. Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon has described WFH as an “aberration”. He’s undoubtedly right.

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