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17 September 2021

Is working from home really an improvement on the office?

Even if you have the space, working from the same place in which you sleep or watch TV or socialise just isn’t very nice.

By Jonn Elledge

Some years ago, I worked with a very confident, very posh man who I strongly suspected of sleeping in the office. If you turned up early, an hour before the day officially began, he would be there, already apparently hard at work. If you had to work into the evening, he would be there then, too, though at some point he’d change out of his flash suit into jeans and a T-shirt and switch to watching YouTube. There’s almost certainly some kind of tragic backstory to this – the London rental market in the early 2010s was bad, but it surely wasn’t that bad – but Occam’s razor is that he’d simply ceased to leave.

Covering for temporary domestic embarrassment is just one of the many things that the workplace of the future may deny us: a poll published yesterday  by the BBC suggests that most of us expect the traditional office, familiar from boring jobs and sitcoms alike, to remain a thing of the past even after the pandemic eventually abates. The survey, conducted by YouGov, found that 70 per cent of the public expect the workforce never to return to the office in the same numbers as they once attended. More importantly, in terms of who actually has the power in this society, 79 per cent of senior business leaders agree.

But – there’s always a but, isn’t there – nearly half of those same senior leaders feel that a long-term shift towards home-working would have a downside, in terms of creativity and collaboration. This fear, it will not surprise anyone who has ever had a manager to learn, is held more strongly among those leaders than among the general public (just 38 per cent). At the same time, a number of companies (Goldman Sachs, Apple, perhaps even some that aren’t awful) have gone so far as to reject calls for flexibility. It is, as with so many things in the world since March 2020, simply too early to say.

There are good reasons to be excited about a shift to home-working. Offices are not fun places, which is why nobody who isn’t an Aaron Sorkin character has ever voluntarily spent their weekend in one. What’s more, few of us enjoy commuting, yet by 2019 the UK average commuting time had crept up to nearly an hour a day: that’s a significant chunk of our waking lives dedicated mostly to travelling to work and wondering if that bloke really couldn’t afford some deodorant, and not getting paid for any of it.

More than that, the requirement to be at least vaguely near the office has pushed people to live in certain place and not others, meaning absurd housing costs for small, cramped spaces in job-rich cities, while leaving other places struggling with all the political and economic implications of the fact a large chunk of their young people simply leave and never come back. If we really can replace the Monday to Friday 9 to 5 with just swinging by for the occasional meeting, we can improve workers’ quality of life, save them money, help address regional inequality and annoy the kind of managers who think the rest of us are naughty children, all at the same time. What’s not to love?

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Maybe. But (oh look, another one) I do wonder if, for once, management might have just the tiniest grain of a point. Partly that’s because, having left the NS to go freelance shortly before the pandemic, it’s become clear quite how many ideas came from arguing with someone, generally the NS political editor Stephen Bush. That’s a personal point though, so consider a more universal one: there is a reason so many people with laptops are hogging the tables in their local cafes these days. Even if you have the space, which many of us don’t, working from the same place in which you sleep or watch TV or socialise just isn’t very nice. (Oh, and not every job can be done from anywhere, of course: not everyone works in the bog standard office.)

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Anecdotally, at least, it feels like many of those who’ve been most enthusiastic about never going back to the traditional office are those with partners, families, and decent-sized houses. Not everyone is in that life stage. If you’re 45 with an established career and a settled family life, it’s easy to see the traditional workplace as redundant. If you’re 25, living in a house share and trying to build a career, a reputation and a social circle, there may be other reasons to go into the office once in a while. Then again, that won’t be true for everyone either, and somewhere out there will be a 25-year-old reading this and thinking that they never want to go back to that awful office again.

If the trend towards working from home really does turn out to be a revolution not a blip, it’ll have all sorts of implications – for housing and commercial property markets, for bustling cities and left behind towns, for the business model of Pret – that will take years to play out. But something we can say now with some confidence is that it’ll make life immeasurably better for some people, while making things harder for others. If it can finally persuade employers to adopt the kind of flexibility required to make the best of that, then perhaps it really will change the word.

Oh, also, it’s probably a bad idea to start sleeping in the office. Apart from anything else it’s really not good for your back.

[See also: The inconvenient truth is that working from home can make parents better employees]