As lockdown has eased. more people have been encouraged to go back to their offices, yet a study by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) indicates that between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of employees will still be working from home on any one day in 2021. Other surveys have put this as much as 4 out of 10.
With government also warning about the imminence of another ‘spike’, many businesses are in no hurry to revert to traditional practices. While some companies will start bringing back a skeleton-staff in September or October, others do not plan to return until 2021 at the earliest. Last week, state-owned Nat West (recently re-branded from RBS) said that 50,000 (90% ) of its staff would stay working from home until next year. Other City institutions such as Standard Life have told the majority of employees to do the same. Though increasingly concerned about the decimation of businesses dependent on city centre commuters, any government instruction to civil servants return to the office would likely meet fierce trade union concerns over health and safety. There may be even walk outs.
But will working from home, an activity that was extremely limited before the pandemic, become an integral part of the post-Covid economy? New technology firms were some of the first to make the switch to remote working for all their staff, building on pre-existing infrastructure such as office chat groups, remote access to critical tools, and the fact that much ‘knowledge work’ can be carried out remotely. Facebook says it expects half of its workforce to be working remotely in the next 10 years, while its rival Twitter has told employers they can work this way permanently.
If bosses are concerned about productivity falling when they are not able to keep an eye on their charges, their companies can certainly claw back the huge costs of maintaining working space in city centres. So it looks increasingly as if work will never ever go back to how it was: companies who have sent all staff home are now beginning to question why they had to go in to the office in the first place.
Despite concerns about increased social isolation, the blurring of boundaries with leisure, as well as concerns about ‘atomisation’, working from home has become popular, especially for those facing long commutes alongside family responsibilities. According to CEBR a third of office workers want to continue doing this, while other surveys show 60% of people working from home due to Covid are content with waiting until the end of May at the earliest before returning to the office, with even higher numbers wanting to work from home at least part of the time. A pattern of ‘hybrid’ working could emerge, where employees spend part of their week at the office and the rest of it at home. This will still allow the rationalisation of premises and enable face to face contact with others you once worked with.
But it is still the case that many will never really have the option. According to YouGov polling almost a quarter of employees never worked from home and still do not. Most of those workers who have lost their jobs in recent weeks are from this group.
Lockdown has protected those higher up the occupational structure, whose jobs are more easily done from home, while forcing those lower down to risk exposure by continuing to go to their workplaces. YouGov data backs this up. Among workers in ABC1 households, 53% say they are now working from home full time. This figure is just 22% in C2DE households. By contrast, four in ten workers from C2DE homes (40%) say they are not working from home at all, compared to only 16% of ABC1 workers who say the same.
Before the pandemic, the polarisation of work was evident through differences in pay and career prospects. Now, despite some important exceptions, these differences are likely to be also evident in how people work and where. This means that future employment policies will need to be much broader than they have been in the ‘old’ world and that trade unions, slow to get to grips with ‘platform work’ and the effects of automation, will face additional challenges.