Lovewell’s logic: Should the office be the default working environment?

Debbie Lovewell Tuck Editor Employee Benefits

The working-from-home debate was reignited this week following Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s comments that the office should be the default location for workers, unless they have good reason to work from home.

Speaking at the British Chambers of Commerce conference, Hunt said that despite the exciting opportunities offered by working from home, “there is nothing like sitting around the table, seeing people face-to-face, developing team spirit, and I worry about the loss of creativity when people are permanently working from home and not having those watercooler moments where they bounce ideas off each other.”

According to figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in February 2023, 16% of working adults reported working solely from home between September 2022 and January 2023, while a further 28% said they both worked from home and travelled to work during the same period.

So, have the past three years taught us nothing about how the majority of employees really work from home? The myth that homeworkers use it as an opportunity to work less than if they were in the office was more than disproved during the course of the pandemic.

I can think of very few, if any, organisations that reported significant falls in productivity during this period. Those individuals who did view working from home as an opportunity to do as little as possible were very quickly identified.

Coincidentally, discussions over dinner with friends recently turned to this very topic. As working mothers, the majority of us had moved to some form of hybrid or home working even before the pandemic necessitated it.

One thing that did change during the course of the pandemic, however, was how home working was perceived. Prior to 2020, many felt a self-imposed pressure to prove that they were working as hard as, if not harder, than office-based colleagues. This often resulted in longer hours, logging on early in the morning, working through lunch breaks and into the evening, often becoming the norm to avoid being perceived as slacking while away from the formal working environment.

With hybrid and remote working arrangements becoming more commonplace, however, this perceived need to be ‘always on’ has lessened to a degree. Many are now used to, and accept, individuals working outside of traditional working hours if it enables them to better manage work and home responsibilities.

Over the past year, however, a number of organisations have begun to call staff back into the office, with many gradually increasing the number of days that staff are expected to attend in person. But is this a case of presenteeism over productivity? Are employees genuinely more productive when working in the office?

Deloitte’s Global Gen Z and Millennial survey 2023, published this week, which surveyed more than 22,000 respondents from 44 countries, found that 77% of Gen Z and 71% of Millennials in the UK would consider looking for another job if their employer asked them to return to the workplace full time.

While there are certainly some employees who prefer to work with colleagues in person, experiences both during and since the pandemic have shown that, for many, platforms such as Teams and Zoom provide a good alternative to face-to-face meetings, enabling colleagues to still see one another regularly and collaborate as teams.

While those watercooler moments may not happen as frequently, many home working teams will still come together on occasion and will almost certainly speak regularly in between.

Creativity does not have to be limited to in-person meetings. How often do those brief conversations while refilling water bottles or making a cup of coffee actually focus on work issues, rather than last night’s television viewing, or weekend plans?

Employees who have come to rely on working from home as a means of enabling them to juggle work and family life may well also reach the conclusion that an employer which insists on employees returning to the office is not for them.

Employers may well find that they lose or find it difficult to recruit key talent if they insist on the office once again becoming the default working environment.

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It begs the question: are comments such as Hunt’s doing employers a disservice by prompting them to reconsider a modern model that actually works perfectly well within their organisation?

Debbie Lovewell-Tuck
Tweet: @DebbieLovewell