On Wednesday 30th September 2020, the Academy of Ideas held a debate on working from home and its social, political & economic consequences.
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When lockdown started in the UK in March, all but ‘essential workers’ were either furloughed or told to work from home (WFH). While employers were expected to encourage a return to the workplace in August, it remains to be seen how many will do so in the long run. Many countries have since eased their lockdowns and ensured a return to work, but the UK government stands accused of equivocation and putting out mixed messages.
After initially successfully getting across the message that those that could should stay at home, Boris Johnson now wants people to get back to work ‘as safely as possible’. However, the government’s chief scientific officer, Patrick Vallance, has said that, for many companies, working from home (WFH) ‘remains a perfectly good option, because it’s easy to do’. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has insisted that employers ‘make sure’ that their offices are Covid-secure, just as environment minister, George Eustace, wants people to ‘come back’, but ‘in a socially distanced way’. Meanwhile, Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, believes that only workplace risk assessments can build public confidence that it’s safe to return.
At the start of September 2020, schools re-opened, but public transport ran at a fraction of its normal capacity, while city-centre chains such as Prêt made 2,800 members of staff redundant. Officials launched a call-to-arms PR offensive to reassure people that workplaces are safe and sociable places to be, to warn them of mental-health issues stemming from WFH and to warn them, too, that jobs might not remain safe if WFH. This last suggestion met with accusations of bullying.
If it was bullying, it didn’t work. While three quarters of employees on the Continent have, reportedly, returned to normal work, in Britain the figure is closer to half. Yet, the threat of losing your job is nevertheless real: 730,000 people have lost theirs since the lockdown began in March. Meanwhile, the number of under-25s claiming Universal Credit has more than doubled, to 538,000. As for the furlough scheme, it is currently due to end in November.
However, surely allowing people the freedom to choose where they work and giving them greater control over their work-life balance is a good thing? Won’t less commuting and attending silly meetings do wonders for productivity? After all, Google has told its 200,000 workers that they can stay home till next summer at least. Other BigTech companies, including Twitter and Facebook, have given employees the option of WFH indefinitely. At the same time, firms from Coca-Cola and Vodafone to RBS and KPMG have said they’re unlikely to ask employees to return this year.
One riposte to the vision of a New Normal through WFH is that it can all too easily turn out to be LAW – Living at Work all the time. The blurring of the private realm of the home with the public world of work may make it harder to balance the two. At home, there are distractions: when children were off school and childcare provision much worse than usual, UCL found, the hours that could be worked at home fell by 40 percent. Women and the poor in particular have been driven from pillar to post by the closure of nurseries and schools.
A recent poll found that 42 percent of respondents WFH miss their old working lives and that 47 per cent miss social interaction. Similarly, a third said it’s hard to motivate themselves; almost a third that they find it hard to switch off; and a quarter of those asked said that they were working longer hours. A fifth confessed to actually missing the commute home – perhaps because, for all its horridness and length, it provides an important marker of the boundary between home and work. Arguably, full-scale, face-to-face, real-time accountability, teamwork and leadership with colleagues and clients are the high-productivity way to get the big tasks done at work. Indeed, one might ask where blue-collar workers who still ‘go to work’ feature in this new vision of WFH.
Beyond COVID, there are a number of arguments put forward in favour of WFH, from it improving wellbeing to cutting down CO2 emissions. It certainly looks hip to write off physical proximity as old-fashioned and to greet a new regime in which WFH is mostly seen as being ‘inevitable’. Yet, what of the wider consequences? Might not your job be shifted elsewhere, where work comes cheaper? What of the impact on high streets and the wider economy? Which of these changes are a consequence of the virus and which were coming anyway? Will they turn out to have been temporary arrangements to be abandoned with the passing of the pandemic or will they become permanent fixtures of the New Normal?
Dave Clements - Author, Forum Chair & Policy Advisor
Dave Clements is an adviser to the London Borough of Havering with over two decades experience of writing policy and leading community engagement initiatives.
Dave Clements co-founded the Academy of Ideas’s Social Policy Forum in 2008 and produces, chairs and speaks in public debates.
Clements also writes on contemporary policy culture and his articles have been published in The Guardian, the HuffPost, the Independent, The Municipal Journal, Community Care, spiked and the International Business Times. Furthermore, he is the author of Social Care for Free Citizens (Manifesto Club, 2010) and a contributor to The Future of the Welfare State (Axess, 2017).
Adam Garrie - Historian, Political Commentator & Journalist
Adam Garrie Adam Garrie is a classically trained percussionist, a PhD student of history at King's College London and a political commentator.
While researching and writing his PhD on Benjamin Disraeli's impact on twentieth-century and contemporary Conservative politics, Adam Garrie has been working as a freelance political commentator and journalist for a number of eclectic mediums, including but not limited to RT's CrossTalk, Asia Times, Politics Today, Global Research, The Express Tribune and Estonian World.
Para Mullan – Manager & Fellow of the CIPD
Para Mullan is the operations director at EY–Seren. Previously, she worked as a senior project manager at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development for about six years. Her expertise lies in people management and she remains a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).
Para's main areas of expertise concern the future of work and the different aspects of work on cultural, social, technological and organisational levels. She is passionate about free speech and political affairs and is a regular contributor to the Academy of Ideas's Economy Forum.
James Woudhuysen – Visiting Professor, London South Bank University
James Woudhuysen is a trained physicist, an experienced product development manager and a freelance commentator and speaker.
After graduating in physics from the University of Sussex, Woudhuysen spent many years working as a senior manager in product and business development, primarily, in the fields of technology and communications.
From the mid-nineties, Woudhuysen moved into academia, becoming a professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University before moving to the University of London South Bank and his current role as a visiting professor in 2015.
Since 2014, Woudhuysen has also been worked as a freelance commentator and speaker and has written and or spoken for well-known mediums, such as Applied Ergonomics, Computing, Cultural Trends, The Economist, The Institute of Mechanical Engineers Journal, Long Range Planning, New Civil Engineer, The Times, The Independent, The Guardian, Sky News and spiked.
Furthermore, Woudhuysen has authored or co-authored numerous essays and or longer publications, most recently including Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation (Shanghai Jia Tong University Press, 2012), The Political Economy of Informal Events, 2030 (Access All Areas, 2019) and The Wiley Handbook of Design and Innovation 2030 (Wiley, 2021).
Maureen Lovatt – Programme Coordinator, Academy of Ideas
Before taking on her current roles, Lovatt worked for 20 years in the arts sector, predominantly, in the north east of England. Here, she produced and managed a range of participatory arts projects, aimed at children and young people in both school and community settings.
Lovatt runs a number of courses for sixth formers teaching public speaking and debating skills and is a regular judge of the Academy of Ideas's Debating Matters competition. Similarly, Lovatt engages in organising debates for adult participation and is both a co-director of The Great Debate and a programme coordinator at the Academy of Ideas.
Recently, she worked as a constituency assistant to Claire Fox during her time as an MEP for the Brexit Party and she also appears on a number of current affairs and politics programmes for Sky, the BBC and ITV. Lovatt is a particularly regular guest on Sky News’s Sunrise programme, for which she reviews the morning papers.
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