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Out of office? How working from home has divided Britain | Working from home


Julie worked “crunching numbers” for the government from home for most of the pandemic, before recently returning to her desk in Whitehall two days a week. The civil servant, in her late 20s, says she was enjoying “the camaraderie of being back working with colleagues”. But then she found a message had been left on her desk while she was at a meeting with her bosses.

“Sorry you were out when I visited,” read the note left by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency. “I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon. With every good wish.”

Over a post-work grapefruit gin and tonic at the Two Chairmen, a Westminster pub favoured by civil servants, she says receiving Rees-Mogg’s note has made her reconsider her dream of a long career in public service. “I’d love to tell him where to shove his good wishes,” she says. “We’ve all been working our socks off throughout the pandemic and now he’s leaving notes implying we’re not working if we’re not at our desks.

“And, this from the multimillionaire MP who [appeared to have] nodded off in parliament,” Julie (not her real name) says to the agreement of colleagues. They are drinking outside the pub on a recent Wednesday evening – which has become the new night for after-work drinks with so many people only in the office on Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursdays (sparking the acronym Twats).

Battles similar to that between Rees-Mogg and civil servants are being played out in offices across the country. While many staff are happy to return to the office, managers in some companies are trying to cajole or pressurise workers back to their desks full-time.

It is now four months since Boris Johnson told civil servants that they “need to show a lead and make sure … everybody gets back to work”. But more than a third of the UK’s office-based workforce is still working from home (at least for part of the time), according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Fewer than one in 10 say they want to return to their desks five days a week. Hybrid is officially the new normal, according to the government’s statisticians.

The ONS said the most common reason given for home working was because it had become “part of workers’ normal routine”, suggesting they “have adopted home working long-term”.

Going back to the office is less popular in the UK than in Europe, according to travel figures compiled by Google’s Mobility report. It showed that last week UK commutes were down 22% compared with pre-pandemic levels, while nearly all Europeans seem to be back at their desks, with Spain and France commutes down 9%, Germany 7% and Italy 6%.

Workers in London appear to be the most sluggish about returning. South Western Railway, which runs commuter-heavy trains from Surrey and Hampshire into London Waterloo, the UK’s busiest railway station, says that rush-hour arrivals have only recovered to 50% of the number pre-pandemic. The number of passengers on the tube remains at 70% of pre-Covid levels, according to Transport for London figures. Across the country, rail passenger numbers have returned to about three-quarters of pre-coronavirus levels, according to the latest Department for Transport data.

Even train industry bosses are still working from home. The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) is the industry body “encouraging businesses and commuters to take the train and get the country back on track”. Yet it is telling its own staff: “All we ask is that you do a minimum of two days a week in the office; the rest of your time can be working from home.” The RDG’s chief executive Jacqueline Starr takes the train to the body’s London headquarters just twice a week on average, spending most of her time working from home in Somerset.

Bosses say they want staff back within sight because they are more productive in the office and it’s harder to collaborate and be creative with colleagues over endless video calls. Many workers, however, say they get much more done at home without gossiping and other office distractions.

Office work can mean more interactions – or distractions. Illustration: David Biskup/The Guardian

Three-quarters of people polled by the ONS said working from home has improved their work-life balance, as well as allowing greater flexibility for working parents and big savings on commuting (in money and time). There is an age divide, with younger people and recent hires more likely to be keen to be in the office to learn from more experienced colleagues and to make it easier to get noticed. Older people who are more established in their careers are, generally, less concerned about presenteeism.

“Hybrid working is not in principle wrong, but unfortunately we see problems with the Passport Office, we see problems with DVLA [the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency], some government services not being provided in the way they should be,” Rees-Mogg told the Guardian during a tour of border controls at Eurotunnel in Folkestone. “And so getting people back, getting people to work to their contractual terms, to ensure that we are providing the services that the British voter expects is important, or we don’t need the office space.”

It is certainly not just the government re-evaluating its property portfolio. A survey by the flexible office space provider Regus found that 69% of companies are planning to reduce their office footprints – which would imply most have accepted the future of work is hybrid. The City of London has announced plans to “repurpose” office buildings left empty by the pandemic into at least 1,500 new homes by 2030. The new homes would represent a 20% increase on the current 7,850 residential units and mark a sharp change in direction. Just seven new homes were built in the Square Mile between April 2017 and March 2018.

One person who thinks this shift to hybrid work is no bad thing is Nick Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University in California, who has been studying the efficiency of home working since well before the pandemic struck. He says the science shows working from home makes staff more productive – and happier.

“Many bosses want everyone back in the office every day because they think that staff are most efficient when all in together,” he says. “All this stuff Rees-Mogg and Boris [Johnson] are saying about people not really working properly unless they’re in the office is disproved by the research.”

As early as 2015, he published research showing that in a study of 16,000 call centre staff, those who worked from home were 13% more efficient than their office-based colleagues. The paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that the WFH team were more productive as they took fewer breaks, were sick less often and put in more calls an hour as they didn’t get distracted by tea breaks and water-cooler moments.

Yet the prime minister told the Daily Mail, which has been running a campaign against creeping WFH culture, that his “experience of working from home is you spend an awful lot of time making another cup of coffee and then, you know, getting up, walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese, then walking very slowly back to your laptop and then forgetting what it was you’re doing”. Bloom, who previously worked in Whitehall, says this is “pure dog-whistle politics”.

“They [Rees-Mogg and Johnson] are playing to the crowd. I assume they have sat down with advisers and figured out attacking WFH is popular with voters they need,” he says. “It’s popular rhetoric with Brexit supporters and non-graduates who are likely to be working frontline jobs.”

The Trades Union Congress (TUC), the unions’ umbrella body, has warned that working from home risks creating a “new class divide” as frontline workers in supermarkets and hospitals, mechanics and other customer-centric jobs do not have the option to work from home. Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, says: “Everyone should have access to flexible working. But while home working has grown, people in jobs that can’t be done from home have been left behind. They deserve access to flexible working, too. And they need new rights to options like flexitime, predictable shifts and job shares.”

The ONS found this week that 23% of workers earning £40,000 or more are still working from home five days a week and a further 38% are in a hybrid pattern, splitting their time between the office and home. But just 6% of people earning £15,000 or less are working from home every day, and only 8% have hybrid working privileges.

Victoria Robinson, a partner at PwC, who advises firms on adapting to WFH and hybrid working, says it’s “unrealistic and unwise” for employers to force workers back to the office full-time.

“This is not a temporary blip; the pandemic has led to a permanent change in working practices and the office as a form of control is gone for ever,” she says. “We’re in the midst of a ‘great resignation’, with more a fifth of workers expecting to change jobs in the next year.

“The war for talent has well and truly arrived,” she says, and it is employers who have to make sure they have an “attractive employee value proposition” to retain and attract the best workers. “Employees are telling us in one of the largest ever surveys of the workforce that what they really want is more flexibility,” she says. “Granting that keeps staff happy.”

While PwC was one of the first big companies to give staff a cash incentive of £1,000 to encourage people to come back to the office last autumn, the firm is now promoting an “empowered flexibility” model in which employees are expected to spend 40-60% of their time “co-located with colleagues”. All its 22,000 UK staff have also been given Friday afternoons off throughout the summer.

However, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the industry body for human resources managers, warns that while WFH can work for many employees, it can hinder companies and prove frustrating for managers. Claire McCartney, the CIPD’s resourcing and inclusion adviser, says “many employees are reporting productivity improvements, but there are drawbacks for many organisations. The bottom line is there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach; companies and employees need to work together to find the right balance,” she says. “Now is the time to get teams to all agree on some principles of how much home working is appropriate.”

There are also concerns about the potential mental health impacts of working from home. Research by management consultancy firm McKinsey found that working from home had actually increased “burnout” rates among all employees as they struggled to juggle their careers and family lives, and this was particularly the case for women. The survey of 65,000 employees found that the gap between male and female burnout rates nearly doubled, with 42% of women reporting burnout compared to a third of men.

The big global banks Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan were among the most dogmatic in ordering all staff back to the office after complaining that it was impossible to “hustle” from home. But the banks’ bosses have struggled to enforce the policy and have been forced to relent over fears of losing top talent.

Goldman Sachs’s chief executive, David Solomon, said “remote work is not ideal for us, and it’s not a new normal”, and predicted in February 2021 that it would be “an aberration that we’re going to correct as quickly as possible”.

A year later, however, less than half the bank’s employees were regularly turning up to its New York headquarters, forcing Solomon, who is a club DJ in his spare time, to again plead with staff to come back.

“The secret sauce to our organisation is, we attract thousands of really extraordinary young people who come to Goldman Sachs to learn to work, to create a network of other extraordinary people, and work very hard to serve our clients,” he said in an interview with Forbes magazine. “Part of the secret sauce is that they come together and collaborate and work with people that are much more experienced than they are.”

Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan Chase’s chief executive, said working from home “doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation. It doesn’t work for culture.”

The wife of one of his top bankers “sent me a nasty note about: ‘How can you make him go back?’”, Dimon told a Wall Street summit in May 2021. “But that’s life.” But JP Morgan also struggled to persuade bankers in New York and London back to their desks, despite tracking swipecard logs and managers reportedly “putting the fear of God” in people who didn’t turn up enough. Dimon finally relented last month and said 40% of the bank’s 270,000 employees could work as few as two days a week from the office. In his annual letter to shareholders, he said “it’s clear that working from home will become more permanent in American business”.

The London law firm Stephenson Harwood is allowing its staff to work from home 100% of the time – but only if they take a 20% pay cut. “Like so many firms, we see value in being in the office together regularly, while also being able to offer our people flexibility,” a spokesperson said.

On the popular law industry website RollOnFriday, one Stephenson Harwood lawyer said the “100home80pay” policy was “a total gamechanger”. “I get to live in Bath and work for a City firm”, earning more than at their former regional firm “even after the 20% discount”.

Working from home can mean being there for more bath times
Working from home can mean being there for more bath times. Illustration: David Biskup/The Guardian

“The best bit, though, is that I can be a better dad to my daughter and a better husband to my wife. For context, I work in the PE [private equity] team and spent the last week working hard to get a transaction over the line but I did not miss a single bath time – neither my daughter’s nor my own!” However, other Stephenson Harwood lawyers complained that it was unfair to pay people different amounts for doing the same amount of billable hours.

Google went for the carrot – rather than stick – tactic to get its employees back to work at its vast Googleplex headquarters in Silicon Valley by hiring the R&B artist Lizzo to perform a private concert.

“We’ve had a long two-and-a-half years of protecting others and ourselves but also being very disconnected,” Lizzo told the thousands of Googlers, who had been ordered to go back to the office three days a week. “Thank you for being back. Thank you for surviving. Google: we back, bitch.”

Bloom, the Stanford professor, says early reports show Google workers are mostly following the mandate. “Getting Lizzo works, but it’s hardly a permanent solution. What next: Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber?” he asks. “The big reason people want to come back is to socialise with colleagues. Really, the best solution is to make the office a nice place.”


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