Are we ever going back into the office and if not, who benefits?


Something seems to have shifted- the last week seems to have been a pivotal week for flexible working. For me, it started with a call from a large UK insurer. They had been making do with a remote desktop solution to enable their employees to work from home since March, but they have now come to the conclusion that they needed a web-based zero client emulator to enable them to offer home working for the foreseeable future. Each and every day since that call, I have been in contact with individuals in my personal or professional life whose organizations have just announced long-term commitment to flexible, home working arrangements.

Whether it’s due to summer coming to a close, schools reopening, or just nearing the sixth month of disruption, something seems to have crystallised. There also seems to be more media attention this week, highlighting the permanence of this shift in our working. A recent BBC study published showed that 48% of companies surveyed currently had no plans to bring staff back into the offices1 . This comes with a raft of announcements from high profile multinationals, with JPMorgan2 , Fujitsu, Linklaters3 , Metro Bank and many others announcing long term work from home arrangements.

So why have some of the biggest organizations in the world started to embrace home working as part of their strategy and what are the implications? Could it be that we haven’t just started to embrace it at all? Instead, that we have been forced to make the adjustments to enable home working, and now that the majority have been made organizations are just taking the prudent steps to ensure they can capitalise on that investment and realise the rewards.

Aside from the obvious cost savings in office space, maintenance and expenses, there are numerous other ways organizations gain lucrative return from investment in their home-working initiatives. In the UK employees commute for an average of 59 minutes per day, that’s an average of 221 hours 4, over five and a half working weeks (9-5). If even a fraction of this time is dedicated back to the business, it is clear how beneficial this could be. Even if the hours worked are exactly the same, research indicates that employees are actually 4% more productive hour for hour, due to reduced distractions and increased workload control5 . A study published in The American Economic Review found that employees were willing to sacrifice approximately 8% of their salaries to work from home6 and whilst I am not suggesting organizations would reduce salaries in this manner, it is clear that over time, this offering would reduce upward salary pressure as part of a cohesive benefits package. As more organizations embrace long-term home working, the cost for those that do not could be high, with 54% of employees saying they would leave their job in favour of one that offered home working7 .

Whilst it is clear that employees are in favour of home working opportunities to improve work life balance with 75% preferring to work at home8 , it is worth taking a moment to consider the macro impact on our society. Home working provides an environmental boost, with the Global Workplace Analytics calculating that if everyone who was able and willing to work from home, did so 50% of the time, the US would reduce greenhouse emissions by 54 million tons9 .

Home working is also seen as a key tenant in improving diversity, reducing gender pay equality and improving the representation of women in board level positions10. Women are eight times more likely than men to take time off work to look after a sick child11 , but homeworking can minimise this disproportionate disruption. Forbes found that women were also more likely than men to switch to lower paid, more flexible jobs after having children12 . With flexibility being woven into even the most senior positions, women’s long-term salary

prospects look set to improve. It’s not just gender equality that stands to benefit, the pandemic has forced adaptations long requested to support people with disabilities13 . As a result of the increasing remote opportunities The Ability People set up Podium14 , an online platform that connects freelancers with disabilities and employers offering homeworking roles. Increased and diverse home working could help to close the shocking UK disability employment gap, which is currently over 28%15 .

So, to answer the first question, who benefits? It seems that potentially, we all could. I suspect, there is likely to be some pain in the transition period, as the high streets and business districts adapt their offerings and office buildings become repurposed; but the potential is there. Whether it is really just a 13% boost for employers and an 8% boost for employees, I am not so sure. I have been fortunate enough to have three out of five work from home days for the past two years, increasing to full time work from home since the pandemic. It allowed me to walk my little boy to school today to start his new school year with his new class and still start work at 9am. I was able to go to the gym on my lunch hour and I will make calls to my US clients tonight. Those benefits are incredibly hard to quantify, but what I can tell you for certain, is that for me and many more like me, it’s a lot more than 8%.