The great WFH experiment: one year on

Last April, many of us were still getting used to working from home. A year on, that has proved to be a less temporary arrangement than we thought at the time. How is it panning out for us, and what effect is the pandemic likely to have on the future of office life?

A recent survey of around 5000 working adults in the UK showed that 52% were currently working from home, and that post-Covid 19% wanted to continue to do so full-time and 59% part-time. A Harvard Business School Online survey of around 1500 US professionals showed similar enthusiasm for home working, with 27% wanting to continue it full-time and 61% wanting to spend only two or three days in the office.

For employers, home working can save money on office space, allow them to recruit the best people regardless of location, and offer flexibility to their employees. Some who might have been nervous of such an experiment prior to the pandemic – perhaps because of concerns about productivity or the face-to-face nature of their business – have been surprised at how well it works. A number of big companies have now announced their plans to move towards ‘hybrid’ working, with part of the working week spent at home and part in the office.

Home working does raise practical issues for employers: data protection and security when documents are accessed remotely and calls may be overhead by non-employees; monitoring health and safety and staff wellbeing at a distance; agreeing who is responsible for providing and insuring equipment, and for covering heating, electricity and broadband costs. It may also require rethinking of some aspects of working life: office design may change (perhaps with fewer desks and more meeting rooms and breakout areas), and benefits packages may come under review (with traditional perks such as subsidised travel and on-site childcare becoming less attractive).

For employees, home working can cut their commute, improve their work/life balance, and help them juggle family commitments. It may allow quiet concentration on a difficult task, or make it easier for a manager to have private conversations with their reports. In an increasingly global world, early or late meetings with colleagues or clients in another time zone can be more convenient if they don’t have to take place in the office.

On the other hand, it can be harder to switch off at the end of the working day, particularly in a smaller house without a separate working area. Those sharing their house with small children, or with housemates working in different fields, may find it harder to concentrate. Others may find it too quiet and miss the social interaction of an office. Online meetings can be more tiring than face-to-face interaction, even without the added frustrations of microphone or screen sharing issues and broadband blips. The UK’s Royal Society for Public Health found that, while nearly half the people they surveyed reported a positive impact of home working on their wellbeing, it could also cause health issues such as musculoskeletal problems, poor sleep, and feelings of isolation – and employees were often finding it harder to get support in addressing these problems.

Home working is not for everyone – it will depend on the nature of the business and the circumstances and personality of the individual. But now that so many companies and workers have experienced it for themselves, it will hopefully become a useful tool in allowing more employers to meet the flexible working requests of their employees.