The sudden transition to mass remote working is raising questions about what we need in a workspace.
In the pre-pandemic days, working from home (WFH) was seen by many as a work perk that they’d like to have more of. 82 percent of respondents in one 2019 survey said they’d like to WFH at least a bit. More than half wanted to do it the majority of the time. But plenty of bosses were reluctant to allow it, worrying that a lack of supervision would lead employees to goof off.
At the heart of the debate was the question of what WFH does to productivity (how fast or well you work). Companies want their workers to be as productive as possible in order to get the most bang for their buck. Economists and politicians tend to be into upping productivity too - because the more stuff that’s being created, the bigger the overall economy and GDP is. And although employees often rate flexible working for improving things like their wellbeing rather than their productivity, it’s still linked to the concept, because happier, healthier people are usually better workers.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, many governments - including the UK’s - started telling everyone who could do so to WFH. That meant a lot more people, including just under half of all Brits, have now tried out remote working. It’s looking likely that a lot of them will continue doing so for many more months, if not years. So, have we learnt anything about WFH and productivity?
Kinda. The data is obviously muddled by the fact that anyone working during a global catastrophe probably isn’t feeling at their happiest and healthiest even if they are now answering emails in their PJs with their cat on their lap. But one thing that is becoming clearer is that many people’s homes don’t currently have the level of equipment, infrastructure or ambiance that would maximise their effectiveness - think things like fast broadband, ergonomic chairs or even just a quiet space to concentrate in.
Investing in such things would up productivity, but it’s not clear who should foot the bill. Expensing a laptop to your boss might not raise many eyebrows, but asking for reimbursement for the higher rent of getting a home with a study certainly would. Companies could point out that the perks of WFH, including saving money on commuting, should balance out any extra costs. But it’s also true that if all the costs of a workplace fall on the worker, then employees from richer backgrounds will find it easier to be productive. And as more productive employees are more likely to be promoted and less likely to be laid off, that’s probably not great for overall social equality.
It’s not just about what you do, it’s where you do it. Workplaces can create and cut jobs, borrow money and interact with the financial market, and buy and sell products from other workplaces, affecting their financial situations. There’s also the question of whether our workplaces should be taking care of us, or whether that’s the government’s job…