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Why telling people to 'go back to work' is a step backwards

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4-min read
A young happy college female student sitting at the table at home, studying.
Many workers have seen the benefits of flexible working during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Getty

For months, many of us have been working from home in less than ideal conditions. We’ve been balancing our laptops on our knees on the sofa, working shoulder-to-shoulder with housemates and partners, and juggling the impossible task of looking after children too.

Despite the odds, we’ve made it work. And now 53.6% of people do not want to return to the office, according to a global survey by Workvivo, a US software company that helps firms engage with their staff.

But now the government has launched a campaign to get us back to the workplace in an attempt to kickstart the economy, with ministers warning of “ghost towns” and empty offices. We’ve also been warned that remote workers may be more “vulnerable” to job loss too, according to sources quoted by the Telegraph. According to data compiled for Sky News, worker footfall in UK cities was just 17% of pre-lockdown levels in the first two weeks of August.

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Of course, this is having an impact on businesses traditionally frequented by office workers, such as Pret A Manger and Costa Coffee. But driving employees out of their homes during an ongoing pandemic is a huge step backwards — not just for workers, but businesses too.

Although it hasn’t been easy, many people have been working from home throughout the pandemic and want to continue. According to research by CIPD, employers expect the proportion of people working from home on a regular basis to increase to 37% after the pandemic, compared to 18% before.

Home-working has been a welcome change from the stress of commuting and the feeling of being chained to your desk all day. We’ve had more time to spend with our families and friends, more time to do the things we enjoy, and the option to take regular breaks without fear of judgement. Despite the obvious challenges of working during a global pandemic, the chance to work remotely has given many employees the taste of a more balanced lifestyle.

Businesses have also benefited from this remote working stress test, too. According to a survey of more than 1,000 employers by the CIPD, a majority believe that homeworkers are either as productive as other workers, or more productive. And with many firms struggling financially as a result of the lockdown, having to spend less on renting large, city-centre offices is likely to be a relief too.

Organisations will also be able to hire people from a wider geographic area and make work far more accessible for more people, in particular, parents and those with mobility or health concerns. For years, working mothers have been told that working from home simply wasn’t an option — leaving them with little choice but to take extended time off or abandon their careers entirely.

Fewer people may be heading to the hundreds of Pret A Mangers in city centres — and the sandwich chain announced it would be making 3,000 job cuts to save the business. But not all businesses are dying. More people are using small, independent businesses and online stores. Allowing people to continue working remotely, even part-time, would no doubt boost spending in local communities and not just financial districts.

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But this isn’t to say that offices will be defunct after 2020. Many workers will be only too glad to get out from behind the video conferencing screens, particularly those trying to work from home in small apartments or house-shares. Remote working may improve work-life balance, but it can be lonely without co-workers.

There will always be a need for people to meet for work, even if it’s just for a couple of days a week. For many workers, the option to do their jobs remotely part-time would be ideal. According to a poll of more than 600 professionals by Stanton House, over 70% now want to work in the office less than two days per week in the future.

“I think what people need now is assurances for their health and wellbeing and returning to office work cannot guarantee this indefinitely,” says Vanessa Tierney, a remote-work expert and CEO of Abodoo, a remote-work talent matching platform. “With the risk of a second wave pending and workers stating their preference to work from home, the government would be better to support hybrid models of work and in turn opportunity could be created.

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“Insisting people return to the office could suggest that remote working was just a temporary fix, and that could really be a missed opportunity for the government to broaden talent pools,” she adds.

“By governments encouraging and supporting remote working and hybrid models there is an incredible opportunity to level up and increase regional employment, attract inward investment into new areas, support first time buyers who can now afford to get on the ladder, roll out digital co-working hubs across the country, and encourage highly skilled diaspora to return back with their careers and positively impact local economies.”