When English businesswoman Tina Knight appeared on ITV’s Good Morning Britain on Monday, she managed to pour plenty of petrol on a debate that has been smouldering for the past few months.
According to the entrepreneur, people who work from home are setting a bad example for their children, are less productive than office-based employees and, she added: “The problem is people don’t want to hear the truth, everything has to be sugar- coated.
“If you were to ask someone what they would like to do, everyone would work from home. Do an hour in the morning, a nice long lunch and an hour in the afternoon. But we have to deal with reality. Business is to make money, which makes profit which the government takes, which makes the wheels go around, but for profit you have to have productivity.”
It may not be the most popular opinion for many people, and she was quickly labelled “offensive” by her fellow guest on the show, but we really are getting to the stage where we need to have a serious conversation about the efficacy and basic practicality of home working.
The problem, however, is that there are compelling arguments on both sides.
When the pandemic first hit us like a ton of bricks and the world seemed to stop turning, many of those who were forced to stay away from their office and do their job remotely were delighted with the arrangement.
Rather than getting up early, showering and then facing the daily trudge through the traffic, they had an extra bit of time in bed, and they could manage their work schedule with more independence than was available when they were office-based. People who had children, particularly, were happy to avail of this new-found freedom. Within a few months, however, that changed for many of them.
I have some neighbours who have been working from home for the first time in their lives, and while some of them love it, I know of others who have succumbed to a serous dose of cabin fever and they’re chomping at the bit to get back into work clothes and back to their desk.
Incredibly, the Tax Strategy Group estimates there are currently 875,000 people working from home in Ireland, an increase on the Central Statistics Office figure of 835,200 at the start of this year.
While some of them will be desperate to get back to the days of work being work and your home being your home and not your office, many of us seem quite happy to continue the current state of affairs. This was one of the many unexpected consequences of Covid and lockdown – it has completely changed the way we view our job.
In fact, it appears we are going through a sort of post-industrial revolution, where the relationship between employer and employee has changed utterly and, having enjoyed the experience of being more in control of their own time, a large proportion of the 875,000 remote workers simply have no intention of ever going back to the daily grind.
We can see that in repeated surveys where a growing number of people, particularly younger workers, say they would simply quit their job if they were forced back to the office.
That’s understandable, if not exactly optimal.
Of course, doing your job from your box bedroom can have plenty of upsides, and when everything works, well, it can be great. Let’s put it this way: I spoke to my boss at 9am yesterday, went back to bed for an hour and then brought the dogs for a walk before sitting down and firing up the keyboard. But there are other days when the laptop is on the blink or you need to bounce a few ideas off someone rather than staring at the wall when it is simply not an efficient use of time.
Many of those younger workers who would quit rather than return to the office are the very people who need an office environment the most.
After all, when you’re starting out in your career, you learn more through the casual mentorship of experienced colleagues to give you a steer in the right direction. We need that daily, physical contact with our co-workers to swap ideas, to learn the lay of the land and, yes, even to gossip at the water cooler. People in their 20s have had the guts of two years stolen from them, and denying them the right to learn from older heads, even if it’s not a right they particularly want, is another betrayal of a generation who have had their lives turned upside down.
We’re social animals, after all, and no amount of those hated Zoom meetings can match a face-to-face interaction.
But there are also other, wider issues at play. For example, if people don’t start returning to work, the city centre will die.
How many of the 875,000 people stuck at home would have bought a coffee and a sandwich when they were in the office? That’s a lot of coffee not being sold and a lot of sandwiches not being bought – small items, for sure, but they are also the life blood of many small news-
agents and shops that have seen their business fall off a cliff in the past 19 months, and they simply won’t survive without the custom of local office workers.
The employment landscape has changed beyond belief, and it’s obvious we’re never going to return to the pre-pandemic work model. That’s not to say the new arrangements are either good or bad, but the reality is that even if Covid disappeared tomorrow, this new working dynamic, initially brought in as a temporary, emergency measure, is not going away.
That’s why hybrid working seems the most sensible solution. Splitting the working week into a 3/2 – in other words, three days working from home and two days spent in the office – would seem to be the best of both worlds.
Will employers accept that? For that matter, will the employees accept that?
Let’s hope so, because we can’t remain a nation of hermits who only deal with our colleagues remotely.