Working from home isn’t always a good thing

A year or so ago I sat next to a young woman at a seminar and asked her what she did. ‘I’m an actuary’ she said. Impressive.  She told me she was leaving her firm, despite its good reputation because she wanted to find a company where she could actually go to the office. ‘ I am nearly thirty and single and I don’t want to be stuck in my small flat all day’. She had my sympathy.  But for many youngsters who graduated during Covid, they have known no different. And still now for some going into the office is fraught with anxiety. But they also do not know what they are missing.

As a graduate at an investment bank many moons ago, I remember the excitement of starting out with a few others. We were sent on courses together and all worked in the same department. We were mentored, worked in an open plan office and had exposure to fund managers for whom we did research. We had morning meetings at which we may have had to speak and certainly needed to listen to others. And the best bit was going to the wine bar (eighties!) after work and meeting lots of other people too.  I simply cannot imagine doing my job from my shared living space as a whole generation have had to do. But there is no excuse for this to continue.

There was an interesting piece in the Times a few weeks ago about the decline of the graduate scheme. There were a number of reasons but one of them was that working from home had changed much of the point of it.

‘“I was on my own, working from home at the beginning. I didn’t even have a desk, and they’re supposed to pay for desks,” he said. “So working from home  [was] to work from bed. I was just miserable.” Civil Service Fast Track graduate’

Another graduate, at Deloitte, said she often worked from 7.30am until 11.30pm, with little support. She worked from home most days, with no contact with other graduates and no way of knowing if her 16-hour days were normal for those on the scheme.

Diversity consultants have always promoted working from home as “a good thing”.  I have done lots of workshops on flexible working in which a day or two at home featured as one possibility among many. But working from home used to be a hard sell even when the internet made it eminently possible. There was a suspicion that people would take advantage of being at home and not work as hard.  So a large number of working mothers chose instead to do a three or four day week in the office taking the cut in salary.

It’s funny isn’t it how things change. Eighteen months and more of everyone who could working from home doing so has given senior male management a taste of the benefits of it.  Now you can earn a full time salary and do a couple of days or even more at home, which is great but not great if it is the entire workforce.

I suspect if the experience of lockdown during which women/mothers did the lion’s share of the domestic work and home schooling is reflective of the domestic division of labour, that the male experience of working from home may be a bit different from that of a mother with three children.  Most senior or even middle managers are probably in a position where they have a decent place in which to work – a spacious flat or house. And many of them have liked it so much that they haven’t wanted to come back to the workplace full time.

But it is a different kettle of fish for the youngsters who unless they are still at home with mum and dad will not be in a big airy house in the suburbs but in a crowded shared flat perhaps like the young graduate quoted above working from his bedroom.   This is perhaps acceptable in an emergency but it is no way for youngsters to learn the world of work, however fast that may be changing. It can surely not be coincidental that we are seeing soaring rates of loneliness among the 24-35 year age group.

Organisations  are also beginning to address whether working from home is good for their profits and efficiency.  “The drive for more staff to return to the office was prompted by concerns about drops in productivity.”

What has also happened is that secure in the knowledge that they may only have to commute once a week at most, some people have moved miles away from their workplaces and are now unable to return full time even when asked.  I spoke to a young woman who used to work for me. She had moved from Surrey to be with her boyfriend in Leeds. I naively assumed she had had to leave her job at the local council. ‘Oh no she said, I work from home and travel down once a month.’  

My research and work has focused on the development and change of workplace cultures. I can categorically say that without in person presence for a majority of the working week, there is no opportunity for cultures to develop let alone change.  Online presence is a very poor cousin to in person interaction.  Basically you cannot form relationships through a computer screen. Humans are ultimately social creatures who require social connection. Any kind of collective work, the sharing of ideas, innovation, team work, mentoring,  sponsorship – all of these require forming relationships.

Currently  most people in hybrid working are choosing to work in the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursday.  No working parent before Covid would have dared suggest this and we advised against it. Of course everyone would want that! A long weekend!  But no, the protocol went like this – request some flexible working with your manager and between you work out what worked best for the company and for you. It had to work both ways.  Something has gone very wrong when where you work on which day is dictated by employees. 

But there is no point in making the youngsters come back to the office if there are no senior or middle managers there. As one young man said to me “I always go into the office as I prefer working there to being in my flat alone. It is never full but on Mondays and Fridays there are hardly any people there.” Senior management – this is your responsibility.