Aug 14, 2021

As the pandemic recedes, if workers refuse an office return they may find their job is outsourced to India

written by Jessica Blain

Almost all of Britain’s bosses are grappling with the working from home dilemma: how often should staff come to the office?

Since the Government introduced lockdowns in March 2020, at least a quarter of the workforce – more than eight million people – have been working from home.

Many are strongly in favour of continuing this giant, national experiment because they avoid commuting.

Britons have saved at least £50billion in fares and other costs of getting to and from work.

If workers once again have to travel to the office every weekday, then the commuting costs will feel like a pay cut.

But bosses know that an organisation’s culture is essential to its success. Some research suggests that working from home has boosted productivity, thanks to less wasted time commuting.

But the long-term damage to staff motivation and morale in a Zoom universe is hard to gauge.

The risk is that we have reached a historic turning point and, in my view, we are sleepwalking into a decision made more for the sake of cost and convenience than the long-term health of business and the economy.

We are about to lose sight of all the benefits of having groups of people working in close proximity. If we continue, we may not find out the worst of the impact for years – by which time, this flirtation with home working might begin to look like a mis-step.

Most entrepreneurs I know desperately want most of their people in the office most of the time. They know that video conferencing is a poor substitute for face-toface meetings.

Nuance, humour, non-verbal communication and humanity are all lost on a digital screen. I try to do all meetings that matter in person – interviews, key pitches, important discussions.

Creativity and inspiration are hard to generate remotely. Mostly I feel drained after a video meeting, whereas often a positive real meeting raises my spirits and energy levels.

I realise that some people are still fearful of crowded public transport. Moreover, business leaders are worried about litigation from staff who feel they have been bullied into returning to workplaces where they feel unsafe because of Covid.

But I have a suspicion that many who indicate support for lockdowns in surveys do so because they are worried they will have to return to the office full-time when restrictions end for good.

Remember, ten million workers had no choice throughout the pandemic – they had to leave home to do their job.

Refuse collectors, postal staff, courier drivers, construction workers, hospital staff, supermarket staff, factory workers and many others were never offered the choice of sheltering at home. They kept the lights on and the country running.

My observation is that large corporations are the most hesitant about asking their workers to come back to the office, with those in professional service firms, such as lawyers, accountants and bankers, the categories most likely to work from home throughout.

Worse, I suspect bosses are just plain scared of asking their highly-paid and cosseted workers back from their cosy new existences – which smacks a little of cowardice.

For senior and middle management, living settled lives in spacious homes with gardens, working from home is doubtless a pleasant alternative to the office.

But for younger, newer staff without established work connections, who should be keen to learn, and who probably live in less salubrious surroundings, working from home is likely to be much less fun.

For anyone ambitious starting out in their career, I have a single piece of advice – go to the office every day and be in the room.

You will be noticed and you will get ahead.

Now is a great opportunity to take advantage of the fact that some bosses have been hopeless at getting people back to the office – and some workers are too scared or lazy to make the trip.

A reckoning is coming this September after the summer holidays end.

Assuming the pandemic continues to recede, most managers will insist that employees attend their usual place of work two or three days a week as a minimum.

If workers refuse, they may find their job is outsourced to India.