Remote working… I bet we’re all sick of hearing that phrase. Once a pipe-dream of no pants, no makeup, and no commute, achieved only by struggling freelancers and forward-thinking, millennial powered flexible workspaces, remote working has wormed its way into the international norm and, for the most part, it seems to be working. Possibly even too well.
When the pandemic went full-throttle back in March, people adapted quickly (it’s not like they had a choice) and this pipe-dream was now a reality. In fact, it was so successful that 74 percent of companies surveyed in April were planning to shift to remote work permanently – no surprise considering 77 percent found it “may lead to lower operating costs.”
In the UK, though, remote working is having a detrimental effect on the economy – well, that is, big, corporate cafes are struggling thanks to the lack of footfall in town and city centers. After a positively terrible time for the country’s service industry, it does make sense that the government is attempting to push a return to the office in order to save it.
Now, a government-backed marketing campaign by Dettol is making its way through the country, harping on about all the things we supposedly miss about the office (“hearing an alarm,” “carrying a handbag” and “plastic plants,” to name a few). And people aren’t happy. Well… at least the people who benefited from the new normal aren’t happy.
— Grazia UK (@GraziaUK) September 3, 2020
I don’t blame them. Clearly the government doesn’t actually care about “proper bants.” It cares about money (this has been glaringly obvious throughout the course of the pandemic). So do workers, though, and many of them found ditching the commute and cooking lunch at home saved them a fortune. And for people with certain disabilities, who have been calling for more flexibility at work for years, employment has become accessible like never before.
But, when I asked around about how people had been finding remote work, the majority of those who were enjoying it either already had a home office set up, were able to create one when things hit the fan, or (in one rare case) were given the equipment by their employers. They also had a stable internet connection and help with childcare.
Remote working exposed the chasm between lower-income and middle-class workers who could afford an ergonomic workspace, had a spare room ready to transform into a home office (yes, separate to their living, dining, and sleeping spaces – what a dream) or had some form of outdoor space to get out into the sun when the heatwave hit.
Yes, a lot of people were able to transform their bedroom into a make-shift office (which is hardly ideal, anyway) but, then again, not everybody has their own bedroom. Writing on the issue for Prospect Magazine, Rik Worth noted that, in 2011, four million households in England did not have a spare room while just under two million were overcrowded. This has obvious implications, especially when more than one person in the household needs to work from home, like distraction, added stress, a lack of work-life balance, and not least the absolute number it does on your back.
For those who can’t access (or afford) a stable internet connection, attempting to work from home can prove rather difficult. In fact, 54 percent of surveyed HR leaders indicated that poor technology and/or infrastructure was the biggest barrier to effective remote working in their organization.
People with certain mental health problems, learning difficulties, and neurological conditions have also struggled. One person I spoke to with dyspraxia, found the disruption to her usual routine difficult and another with dyslexia found her condition much more difficult to manage from home, partly due to the increased admin. Another person with anxiety and neurodivergent tendencies found online classes almost impossible, especially when phone and video calls were panic-attack inducing and only exacerbated their auditory processing issues. Single mothers, too, have had to deal with double the workload with no school and no childcare while the older generation had to wrap their heads around a plethora of new technology.
While government messaging is so clearly misguided, calling for working from home to continue for everybody is missing the fact that remote work isn’t for everybody. And as Worth rightly pointed out, a permanent shift to remote work might leave those on lower incomes or with disabilities and health conditions at the bottom of a remote company’s recruitment agenda.
So unless workplaces are up for forking out on better setups for staff (which seems counterproductive to the goal of cutting overheads) – and even then – there’s no hard and fast answer to this debate. Unless of course, that answer comes down to personal choice; one that accounts for the different lived experiences of employees, like flexible working.