When lockdown came in last March, tens of thousands of business owners in Britain were forced to make allowances for working from home (WFH). For some, it was a natural shift in a direction that they were already pivoting towards. For others, it was an inconvenience, or even an affront to their company philosophy.
The government, it seems, is firmly on the side of the latter. Those who wish to extinguish any newfound love of flexible working that many will have no doubt discovered in the last year are completely supported by the establishment. A study by the Institute of Employment Rights has found the risk of Covid-19 in the workplace ‘remains significant and is being dangerously downplayed by the UK government’s light-touch approach’.(Health & Safety Matters)
Health remains secondary to business in the UK. Unfortunately, no matter how the pound moves, our health doesn’t ‘build back better’. The option to work from home after lockdown is lifted can at least help soften the blow for those who might be put at risk at work.
Consider a study by consulting firm PwC, which analysed the benefits in the Netherlands, where 39 percent of workers worked from home in some form in 2019. The analysis concludes that “increasing the time worked from home by just one day per week amounts to € 3.9 billion annually, primarily driven by cost savings to companies and employees.”
That’s before we even begin to consider the environmental benefit of WFH. An accurate prediction of the reduction in harm to the planet that could be achieved by taking millions of cars from the streets worldwide is difficult to achieve. But, returning to the PwC study, the change of just one more day working from home per week “could bring about a reduction in CO2 emissions of 605.5 million kgs per year, from less (commuting) traffic. This translates to a reduction of 2 percent of total emissions from road transport in the Netherlands.”
Of course, just as there are several positives for some, there are negatives for others. A survey of 1,000 remote workers by Twingate, a cybersecurity firm, found that 40% of employees have experienced mental exhaustion from video calls while working remotely.
As a permanently remote worker, I speak from a privileged position with regards to flexible working. I understand that it’s definitely not for everyone, or even possible for everyone – many jobs don’t fit, and some people prefer to separate work and life. Some people want to be in the office, and some want to be at home. Some want both, at different times in their lives.
Whatever the negatives are, and whether or not they outweigh the positives, the fact remains that working from home feels better for many employees, reduces costs for most employees, and significantly benefits the environment on any metric. So shouldn’t there at least be a right to choose?
It’s difficult to know which way the chips will fall once the pandemic is truly over. It’s disappointing that the embrace of working from home by many has come at a time of global turmoil, since it clouds our judgement of its merits. Perhaps we will have to wait until office working and working from home are on equal footing in terms of safety before making a clear judgement.