The workplace is back like never before. With 831,000 people entering the Tube network on the first Monday of September – the highest level since March 2020 – many employers have no doubt used the end of summer and decline of the pingdemic as an incentive to get their staff back to work. That Monday, 860,000 people also used the buses, demonstrating the growing reliance on public transport. With any safety measures in place and a recognition of the importance of in-person work, one might think the days of Zooming have permanently come to an end.
That would be too quick a conclusion to jump to. The number of Tube travellers, even at its highest level for 18 months, was still half the pre-pandemic norm. Nevertheless, a narrative around more flexible working is one that is grabbing hold. Once someone has been given something, say, the chance to work from home thanks to a pandemic, they are unlikely to give it up easily. Keir Starmer has taken advantage of this fact, arguing that flexible working is no bad thing.
It is a dividing line that has opened up between the main parties. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, has expressed more scepticism towards home working, arguing that the opportunity for young people to meet staff and make professional connections in person is not one that should be easily given up.
The whole point is that your attitude to working from home will largely be dependent on what your home is like. If you’ve got the latest technology, plenty of office space, amazing wifi and wonderful views, a career operating from home doesn’t seem too much of a struggle. By contrast, workers that are flat sharing, with limited space and broadbands, will be unable to be their optimum professional selves if the technology prevents that from happening.
Polling for the BBC found that 70% of people predicted that workers would ‘never return to offices at the same rate’. This is probably correct. That home working suddenly became not only acceptable but mandated by the government meant individuals would have become used to a new situation. Among those would be spending more time at home with the children of workers and families. We all got used to seeing children interrupting the broadcasts of professional journalists and, frustrating though it may have been at the time, it provided the chance for families to spend more time with their loved ones.
Keir Starmer has recognised that appealing to older voters will be a top priority if he is to have any chance of triumphing, come the next election. In 2019, 35% of 40-49-year-olds voted Labour compared to 41% for the Conservatives. YouGov found that for every ten years older a voter is, their chance of voting Tory increases by 9% and the chance of casting a ballot for Labour decreases by 8%. The age at which voters are more likely to back the Tories over Labour decreases from 47 in 2017 to 39 in 2019. Labour lost 9% of its support between 2017 and 2019 among the under 60s.
All these statistics are, I hope, a way of demonstrating the priorities and manner in which Keir Starmer is going to frame Labour’s future attitude towards work. A victory for the party will not be complete without winning over families and parents, many of whom would fall into that age bracket. A desire to spend less time commuting and more time with children is an understandable one. However, it does mean he is likely to treat his core voters – younger ones – in a less than impressive manner.
Indeed, it is likely young people that have had their employment chances most affected by the pandemic. For companies that have needed to make workers redundant, junior staff, those who are newest to arrive, are likely to have faced the most redundancy. According to the Huffington Post, ONS figures found that under 25s were being specifically impacted by job losses or reduced hours at the start of the pandemic, with 60% of participants in a poll believing that young people need face-to-face contact to optimise their future careers.
It shouldn’t take a genius to explain that working from home and managing a career is far harder if you’re flat sharing. Competing for space, internet connection while maintaining a good personal connection with flatmates is undoubtedly tricker than those who enjoy a wider array of space. Moreover, renting as a group of people is not a trend likely to diminish any time soon. Property management company Built Asset Management found that the average age of co-living tenants was 28.2, compared to 23.9 in 2017, demonstrating that cohabiting is not just a trend for the very young.
Given that Labour is supposedly the party of workers, you would like to think they would adopt the most worker-friendly policies. Working from home does not necessarily fold into this bracket. The great thing about a commute and office is that they clearly distinguish between work and home. Workers drive, catch the train, bus, cycle or walk to their place of work, conduct their eight hours of labour and then have time in the evening to themselves.
Yet the idea of working from home and relying on technology makes that far harder to achieve. Bosses can constantly monitor their workers, check the completed tasks, and send requests that may last long beyond a worker’s contracted hours. That a worker hasn’t got to commute may be justification for requiring them to work longer, with individuals trying to stop out of hours messages.
The future of work is exciting and transformative. Whatever changes that may be introduced from artificial intelligence and a universal basic income, the majority of citizens are likely to work in some profession for the foreseeable future. The means by which that takes place and how it can be balanced is crucial for ensuring meaningful employment and a personal future.
Although working from home may provide a new utopia for many, politicians of all political persuasions must recognise what can be gained from the office and commute, old fashioned though they both may seem in this post-Covid era.