Pros and cons

Working from home: flexible future or a zombie nation?

A ‘default’ right to work remotely could be made law under new government proposals

Millions of British employees could get the right to work from home forever under a new law being considered by ministers.

A proposed change in law would make it “impossible for employers to insist on staff attending the workplace unless they can show it is essential”, the Daily Mail reports. The government will consult on the plan this summer ahead of possible legislation later this year.

In a Whitehall document seen by Politico London Playbook, it was revealed that “some form of working from home is set to continue for the long haul, offices could be required to install ventilation systems and a raft of other measures are likely to be needed even after England moves into ‘Step 4’ of its coronavirus roadmap”. 

A Whitehall source told the Mail that “we are looking at introducing a default right to flexible working”. It could cover “reasonable requests” by parents to start late so they can take their children to childcare and also cover working from home. “That would be the default right unless the employer could show good reason why someone should not.”

Politico’s Alex Wickham says this could lead to a “major row to watch out for in the coming weeks” while the Mail adds that “furious bosses” have condemned the Whitehall blueprint. 

Here we look at both sides of the working from home debate:  

Dragging ‘zombie’ Britain back to the 1970s 

Ex-CBI director general and trade minister Digby Jones says the plans to give employees the right to flexible working will “drag the UK back to the 1970s”. Warning of a “zombie Britain”, he writes in the Mail that “our town and city centres will die, local tax revenues will evaporate, transport systems will collapse and productivity will fall”. 

However, in response to Jones’s “extremely colourful opinions and occasionally accurate ones”, financial secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman said home working laws will be “company-specific” to prevent a zombie nation, The Telegraph reports. 

“This may suit some people, and not others, but companies have no interest in going backwards,” he told Sky News. “Working from home gave benefits, benefits to the economy as well as personal ones.”

Bleak outlook with no office life

Post-Covid Britain without office life would be “bleak”, Ben Marlow says in The Telegraph. “Bleak for business and productivity, bleak for collaboration and creativity, bleak for public transport and bleak for towns and city centres up and down the country.”

There are “obvious benefits” to home working in terms of stress levels and cost, he adds, but if the office is gone forever then that is “something to be mourned, not celebrated”.

A study by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change found that one in five roles in the UK can now be classified as “Anywhere Jobs”. If the work-from-home revolution continued, 5.9m roles mainly in ICT, financial and professional services could be at risk.  

A permanent shift to home working is likely to meet resistance from Conservative MPs, the Mail reports. And Tory MP Felicity Buchan said the continued advice to work from home was having a devastating impact on central London businesses.

A parenting ‘reboot’ 

Lockdown “wasn’t easy or straightforward”, says Orla Ryan in the FT, but from a “family point of view there were some things that were really good in my case”. Working from home has “given this parent a reboot” and there are “clear benefits”, she adds. “I probably have an extra hour and a half every day with my children. I am no longer just ticking the box marked ‘Parent’; I am actually being a parent.”

Permanent remote employment is “the key to retaining working parents”, says Paola Peralta in US-based magazine Employee Benefit News (EBN). “Working parents don’t want to go back into the office – they want employers to make it easier for them to stay out of it.”

Parents in the US are eager for flexible and hybrid working and according to a study by FlexJobs 61% say they want to work remotely full-time and 37% prefer a hybrid work arrangement. Should work from home options not be made available, 62% are prepared to quit their current job, EBN reports. 

The impact for women

While some parents are enjoying the chance to spend more quality time with their children, the work and live from home scenario also presents the challenge of juggling many tasks – especially for mothers. 

Working from home for women is not the same thing as working from home for men, the Women and Equalities Committee said in a report titled Unequal impact? Coronavirus and the gendered economic impact. “The number of hours that women have of uninterrupted work is minimal, while fathers are much less likely to be interrupted.” This may be damaging for a woman’s career prospects.

In the US Bloomberg Equality reports that the return to the office is “pushing even more women out of work”. Companies are asking people back, but there’s less childcare than ever and mothers are “paying the price”.

‘Life-changing for disabled people’

Remote employment has been “life-changing” for disabled people and the shift to home working has “brought new opportunities to those previously excluded from the workforce”, Frances Ryan wrote in The Guardian earlier this month. However, the fear is that “any gains made during the pandemic will be discarded now that the wider public no longer need them themselves”.

Ryan says that attempts to gain access for disabled people are often met with pushback – “it’s too much trouble, too expensive or simply unnecessary”. Lockdown showed that “sweeping changes can be made practically overnight with little fuss” – the question is, if it was done for non-disabled people then, why not disabled people now?

“As we rightly celebrate a return to normal, it should be remembered that, for disabled people, ‘normal’ too often means being excluded from everyday life.” 

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