After much speculation, a second national lockdown is here.
For many, this is an extension of effectively nine months already spent working from home. However, some businesses are taking this a step further, by asking people to stay at home until the end of 2021, moving jobs to secondary cities, and even advertising for new remote-only roles.
While it is critical that we act responsibly to protect our communities in the immediate term, these discussions have dangerous implications for further down the road and risk causing major disruptions on leadership, innovation, and diversity in the workplace.
The pros of “WFH” are often presented to workers as time clawed back from commuting: saving money, finishing work at 6 on the dot, and being on the yoga mat at 6:01pm. The cons are less widely discussed, although the Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane presented some of them last week. Haldane highlighted issues such as loss of creativity, spontaneity, interactions with colleagues and exposure to external stimuli, which will all have resonated with those missing the office’s role as a hub for collaboration.
Yet when we focus the conversation on the benefits for select individuals or on the productivity of a business, we are missing a wider point about the long-term implications of WFH: humans may be “digital by default”, but we are not by design.
Flexible working — giving people control over their working day and trusting colleagues to get the work done — is a tremendously positive step, especially for parents or others with caring responsibilities. But the reality is that working from home is a privilege of the privileged.
Working from home can work well for someone who is already established in their career and has space solely dedicated for work within their home. But the average Londoner between the ages of 20 and 39 has just 9.3 square metres of personal space to themselves. For context, the minimum size of a prison cell in Norway is 10 square metres.
Home used to be a haven for many from their work. For them, “working from home” is now living at work.
A poll by the London School of Economics and affordable housing developer Pocket Living released in August found that 37 per cent of Londoners have been working and sleeping in the same room. Add to this the fact that half of young workers surveyed said that they feared working from home would hamper their career development — unsurprising, given how much new starters learn from watching and overhearing their senior colleagues — and the positive mythology around the WFH movement evaporates.
Yet, the narrative that home working is beneficial to the majority persists. This is in spite of the fact that four in 10 British office workers fear that their mental health and wellbeing will suffer if they are forced to spend another six months working from their living spaces.
So why is it that the messaging which most aligns with this privileged experience of lockdown — job stability and the ability to work well from home — is the overriding one?
In short, it is because this flexible working utopia is the experience of those whose voices are most often heard. This is the fundamental risk of long-term home working: we only hear from those for whom it is working. The other side of the debate gets lost.
It is not just the spontaneity which Haldane mentioned that we lose over video calls, but also subtlety, quieter voices and diverse ideas. There’s an underlying glitch; it is far too easy only to hear those who shout the loudest and who often already have a platform for their opinions.
This is a problem not just for those individuals, but for the economy. The Harvard Business Review reported that companies with proven diversity out-innovate and out-perform their rivals by creating an environment where “outside the box” ideas are heard. In contrast, working from home stifles creativity because it removes opportunities to listen to different voices and learn.
As soon as it is safe, we need to get back to the office — both for the sake of those who are living at work, and to prevent our home offices becoming little more than echo chambers.
In business and in life, the ability to listen is something we cannot afford to lose.
This piece originally appeared in City A.M. City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.