Coronavirus

Should we be celebrating the death of commuting?

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In the latest Cormoran Strike detective series, Lethal White, on BBC One, Strike’s assistant Robin Ellacott switches from commuting by Tube to cycling into work. This, according to the series, has done wonders for her mental health. One can’t help but wonder whether, were the series set in 2020, she would be working from home or have been furloughed. The demand for detectives during a pandemic is ambiguous to say the least.

Robin’s fictional commuting thoughts are a reality for the general public. Over the last few weeks, the government’s messaging has transformed towards encouraging office workers to return to work. At the height of the pandemic, a large amount of focus was given to the nine million furloughed workers, like retail staff or hospitality assistants. Unable to undertake their jobs unless their place of work was open to the public, their wages were paid for by government. The decline of this scheme has led to rising speculation of a dramatic increase in unemployment.

What was ignored at the pandemic’s most severe points was those whose jobs were secure. The public celebrated vital key workers, who couldn’t stop working, regardless of the pandemic. Elements of the public, quite wrongly, frowned upon those who were furloughed. The forgotten group were individuals working from home. Although this encompasses a wide variety of jobs, it was most likely to include office workers. Provided the worker had internet access, individuals who sit at a computer all day could continue with their role at home.

Working from home has not been regarded as sustainable by the government. Their campaign and messaging is now telling workers to return to their central offices. This is despite a new law from 14 September which bans social gatherings, indoors or outside, of more than six people. In a sense, this change of messaging represents the government’s changing priorities. Health and wellbeing usurped everything else in the initial stages of the pandemic. Individuals simply weren’t aware of how serious and deadly the pandemic might be.

The government will need to take multiple steps in their budget. One of them will be encouraging and incentivising businesses. It will be a mixture of private sector activity and state investment that will fuel the UK’s recovery. Yet, especially in cities, many businesses rely on the trade and custom of office workers.

Think about it. Businesses in Zone One, the central part of London, are dependent on wealthy office workers spending their cash on their dash to work, during their lunch breaks and after the day has ended. If individuals are working from home, they won’t be spending money in those central locations. Businesses won’t receive the necessary income. They will inevitably collapse.

Despite the government’s support for office working, there hasn’t been a huge drive from companies. The business newspaper City AM reported, in mid-August, only 30% of workers were working five days a week at their office. In Italy, the figure is 40% whilst France has reached 50%. Working from home is being seen by some companies as a new positive revolution that provides workers with a sense of purpose. The logic from some companies is obvious. If their workers are just as productive at home, why waste revenue on expensive office space?

However, working from home is far from a utopia. The cliche ideal of permanent Zoom meetings, never getting properly dressed and spending more time indoors is far from perfect. Nonetheless, it is possible to agree that a key tenant of home working is having an adequate space in which to work. For full time workers, no longer in education, this shouldn’t have to be in one’s bedroom. Individuals who are permanently home working, in an ideal world, would have a separate office that allowed a clear, physical space for their professional life.

Yet, that is more likely to be a dream than a reality. The flat sharing website SpareRoom found searches by those aged 35 to 54 had risen by five times in 10 years. Workers are therefore far from likely to have adequate space to complete their tasks effectively. An office desk at least provides a specific space where someone is guaranteed to have the necessary tools to complete a task.

Those in poorer housing, with fewer rooms are less likely to have these. Their office will probably also be their dining room, their sitting room and perhaps even their bedroom. If multiple flatmates are trying to complete their work, essential for paying rent, in these confined spaces, that will only create social conflict and resentment.

Working in an office also provides a clear distinction between home and work. That is quite literally what a commute does. It allows individuals to separate their personal lives and interests from their professional responsibilities. This distinction, generally made clear in a contract, ensures exploitation is less likely. An individual knows they must arrive at their office by 9am, have half an hour for lunch and finishes at 5pm on the dot. There is no ambiguity. By contrast, working from home could encourage corporate exploitation.

How so? Companies could encourage their workers to start an hour earlier. Given they’re no longer commuting, there may be an opportunity for greater productivity. By this logic, workers could be made to finish an hour later, have fewer breaks and less flexibility. There would hardly be the opportunity to discuss this with one’s boss in a quiet, but decisive manner, given nobody was at the office. Similarly, if some individuals remain at a central office while others work from home, the responsibilities of the latter could increase.

According to CNN, major tech companies including Facebook and Twitter are going to encourage permanent home working for much of their workforce over the next few years. Given how much these companies are built around being at a computer, it is not tricky to see how, in the name of flexibility and productivity, citizens could be encouraged to work for longer.

Lockdown has been truly terrible for so many. Physically, strokes and cancers are unlikely to have gone undiagnosed. Given they are conditions where defeat is so reliant on early detection, many individuals will have suffered, perhaps terminally. Lockdown will have also been a nightmare for victims of domestic abuse. Potentially stuck with their abuser 24/7, they will have had no opportunity to escape them. While working cannot solve their problems, it can provide a space for them to temporarily escape their abuser, confide in others and find support. Working from home would do none of those things.

Neither working from home or permanently returning to offices is a perfect scenario. The best solution is most likely flexibility. Some companies will require their workers to enter the office a few days a week and work at home otherwise. It is clear businesses are dependent on the physical presence of workers in their places of work to survive.

As Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, director of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has written, city centres are turning into “ghost towns” which comes at “high price for local businesses, jobs and communities”. Given Transport for London was set to lose £4 billion in May, losing 90% of its overall income, and ended up dependent on a £1.6 billion loan from government, it’s clear all parts of the economy would be affected by individuals spending more time at home.

With any solution must come a recognition of what is best for workers. Happy workers will make productive workers, which is brilliant both for individual mental health, the success of the company and the nation’s overall finances. Of course, all the problems with home working – lack of space, domestic abuse, worker exploitation – require large, structural answers. In the short term though, returning to the office may provide some of the answers.

In the long term, the economic future with a large proportion of the workforce still at home doesn’t look so grim. The economist Ian Stewart from accounting organisation Deloitte forecast the UK economy would grow by 15% in the third quarter of 2020, while the entire economy may grow by 7.5% in 2021, according to Reaction Life. As he states, the situation is far from perfect with economic activity not returning to pre-crisis rates “until late 2022”.

Nonetheless, it would suggest an economic recovery doesn’t rely on the previous rigidity of office working. In a company’s consideration over whether to return to their central offices, their economic desires combined with the needs and thoughts of their workers should be taken into consideration.

One ominous thought that should enter their mind is, that while some employees may thrive working from home, others may not experience such pleasure. Why? Their personal situation may be such that life feels like they’re sleeping at work. Nobody ever fared well in that situation, did they?

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