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The home-working revolution: new normal, old divides?

Not all workers and regions have been equally affected by the virtual office era. 

By Jonny Ball

Coronavirus has ushered in huge changes to working patterns at a breakneck speed. Companies have adapted quickly to a new dispensation in which all employees who can work from home, do work from home. The watercooler chat has quickly disappeared.

Last year, long before the Covid-19 crisis, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) published analysis showing that, despite a steady increase in home-working over the previous decade, years after technology had made it possible, “not enough bosses [were] giving their workers the option of home-working”. The TUC lamented a lack of trust in employees, which it said was preventing change even though evidence showed the clear productivity benefits of home-working. 

[See more: Frances O’Grady: “You can’t put the demand for flexibility back in its box”]

Now, within months, nationwide lockdown has forced employers to expedite a home-working revolution. But it hasn’t impacted all workers equally.

 

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Share of workers in each industry that say they can do their job from home:

 

Pre-lockdown, managers were more than twice as likely to work from home than the average employee and a plurality of pre-Covid home-workers were highskill professionals. The wide disparities between sectors, industries, classes and income groups has persevered into the coronavirus era. YouGov data from April shows that in the generally low-paid hospitality and leisure sector, where the workforce is dominated by younger employees in more precarious roles, only 10 per cent say they can work from home. In well-paid sectors such as accountancy, financial services, and media and advertising, 66 per cent, 73 per cent, and 74 per cent say they can work from home, respectively.

There are regional variations, too. Almost half of London workers say they can work from home effectively (the plush Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea had the highest concentration of pre-Covid home-workers), compared with under a third in Wales and the North East. This all-too-apparent divide has been exposed in the greater susceptibility of low-income workers to Covid-19.

 

How ready is the UK for home-working?

 

CEOs of large transnational companies, including Barclays and WPP, have predicted the end of crowded offices, central business districts and mass commuting. There are clear financial benefits for such firms: a PwC survey in May showed a quarter of chief finance officers were exploring real estate cutbacks. The market in city-centre office space looks doomed. Martin Sorrell, the WPP founder and S4 Capital executive, said he spent £35m a year on property, a sum he would “rather invest in people”.

 

Home-worker well-being:

 

But the emancipatory vision of independent home-working may not quite live up to its promise. Some employees are reporting deteriorating mental and physical health, with increased stress, longer hours and unhealthier lifestyle choices. The virtual office looks set to be one of the more enduring effects of the pandemic. But the new normal may not eliminate old problems and inequalities, and many workers may miss the water-cooler chat. 

This article is from our recent Spotlight report on business continuity. Click here to see the full supplement.