To many of us, working from home proved a mixed blessing. What began as sheer nirvana – an extra hour in bed, leisurely lunchtime walks, home-cooked meals – quickly soured into boredom and lethargy. Returning to the office means relearning long-dormant skills, like how to iron a shirt without ending up rocking Dominic Cummings’ “chaos chic”. But despite the odd culture clash, the experience of returning to a full office brings immeasurable benefits. Nothing can replace the ideas and serendipity created by personal interaction.
Yet just as businesses reopen and public transport heaves once again, the national picture remains patchy thanks to the “pingdemic”. The revelation that half our political leaders were self-isolating last week may have been good or bad depending on your politics. But when staff shortages cause empty shelves, you know you’ve got a disaster on your hands.
Responding to calls that the system be tweaked to allow key staff to keep working after testing negative, however, unions reacted furiously, exhorting their members to ignore the exemption and stay at home.
“Why should our people be infected with Covid? They are panicking and trying to force our workers back to work, where it’s not safe,” cried Steve Hedley of the RMT, as if vaccines hadn’t dramatically changed the balance of risk.
So far so predictable, but under the pandemic a similar kind of happy indolence has infected the private sector, too. The self-isolation fiasco gave many workers an unimpeachable excuse to bunk off work. It feels taboo even to say this, yet we are creatures of incentive as well as habit. If a system is easily gamed, it probably will be, whether it’s fraudulently claimed furlough payments or the enterprising kids who faked positive Covid tests to wag off school. Am I alone in finding it a tad suspicious that self-isolation surged just as the heatwave began?
Others in low-paid or part-time work will have, quite rationally, jumped at the chance to self-isolate, delighted to qualify for a £500 grant that might well exceed their usual earnings.
As the Telegraph reported yesterday, the end of WFH requirements is encountering major resistance, with numerous employees bringing legal action against bosses. Many, such as the immunosuppressed, will have good reasons for wishing to avoid crowded workplaces. Other arguments, as with those bringing personal injury claims due to “stress from having to commute”, seem much flimsier. Calls for progressive idees-fixe, such as the four-day week, have also grown louder recently (though presumably their proponents do not envisage any loss of pay).
In all of this, we can detect an unmistakable “cakeism”, not to mention something that was widespread among middle-class professionals before the pandemic – a belief in the primacy of employee wellbeing. This sense that work is meant to fit around the employee, not the employer (let alone be a compromise between the two); that work-life balance is no longer a reasonable attempt to prevent burnout but something employees alone decide, is clearly feeding into the debate too. A consensus is forming that professionals no longer need to justify working from home; it is for employers to explain why they should return.
Whitehall officials are reportedly considering proposals to enshrine the right to home-working in law. Flexible working can often yield better results for both sides, yet codified like this it could prove a “Slacker’s Charter”, and trigger logistical nightmares for bosses. And not that you’d know it from following media debates on the topic, but most people in the UK did not work from home regularly during the pandemic. Society is surely polarised enough as it is without conferring additional perks on this already privileged minority. Yet we should expect similar arguments in the coming weeks, along with heated debates about keeping pandemic support schemes in place.
“Temporary” hikes to universal credit helped low-income families at a particularly difficult time; but inevitably at the expense of weakening incentives to work. Now there are calls to make the uplift permanent.
In America, well-meaning assistance has already sparked a paradoxical state of affairs. While millions remain unemployed, across the country businesses are complaining of urgent workforce shortages. The answer may lie in those pesky incentives once again. Economists believe the Biden administration’s $300 supplement to weekly unemployment benefits deterred millions from returning to the job market. Scores of states have moved to cut off the extra entitlements early as a result.
The pandemic has prompted a surge of complacency; a feeling that we simply no longer need to worry about proving our worth or keeping our jobs. It has inculcated an attitude that says employers must adapt to our preferences, and if worst comes to worst, the Government will bail everyone out. For white-collar workers, whose jobs are more easily outsourced abroad if WFH becomes the norm, such an outlook could be more self-destructive than they realise.
Incentives can be changed – though in a political climate like ours that is easier said than done. The culture shift may prove much more stubborn.
Is the end of WFH requirements filling you with dread or relief? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.