Returning to the office is not just for the good of the sandwich shops. It’s good for society and good for all of us as a whole.
The mass working from home experiment many of us have been part of for the best part of a year is rightly causing much debate about the future of the workplace. Some organisations have already opted for a more hybrid model, having consulted existing staff about their optimal balance between working from home and in a workspace provided by the employer. Other organisations have already moved further to a completely virtual model, with occasional team get-togethers planned at venues booked for the occasion, but with no permanent dedicated workplace available for staff. Many of these decisions are driven by financial considerations – premises being one of the major overheads of all employers, alongside the salary bill. Most of the commentary about these options from an HR and employment law perspective focuses on the need to maintain team cohesion and planning for issues such as health and safety, data security, implications for tax and remuneration. Those are all of course necessary considerations before deciding what is right for the particular organisation and reducing spend on expensive work premises while offering current staff more flexibility to work from home can clearly make sense for the individual employer and its staff.
But there are two wider societal reasons why we should not rush too quickly to abandon the work-place and for work to continue to be done predominantly in a workplace rather than at home. First, for most of us, assuming we avoid going to prison or having a long spell in hospital, the workplace is the one place in adult life where we have no choice about who we mix with on a daily basis. Candidates do increasingly research the culture of an organisation before they apply to work there and may be persuaded to work for one organisation rather than a competitor, by the people they meet at interview. But in all bar the smallest workplaces, we know little of any of the other people we’ll be working with and, once through the door, we don’t tend to choose our colleagues.
Instead we have to mix and collaborate daily with people from all sorts of backgrounds and demographics, with whom we would otherwise not necessarily choose or have the chance to spend time. That is why the workplace has been the front line for successive UK and other governments trying to shift societal attitudes through anti-discrimination laws. The workplace has a ready-made mix of people across gender, age, ethnicity etc. and so it’s a good place to start trying to achieve change in attitudes and to drive equality. Those anti-discrimination laws are not perfect and implementation is patchy between different workplaces. But in an increasingly polarised world, we need more opportunities for people of different backgrounds and perspectives to mix regularly, not fewer. Remote working offers materially less opportunity for this and risks slowing the progress that has undoubtedly been made.
Tempting though it may be to reduce overheads by giving up expensive premises and moving to a virtual working world, there is another reason why we do so at our peril. Workplaces can be a great equaliser in terms of giving those from disadvantaged backgrounds access to the same resources and opportunities as their better off colleagues who may be better-placed to manage working from home. While the pandemic has given many a welcome break from the daily grind of commuting and the chance to regain some time in the day for themselves, many of those seeing the benefits are also the ones with a spare room to work in at home and several years in the workplace under their belt. But working predominantly from home makes delivering successfully for your employer and developing your skills materially harder if you have no suitable space to work at home. It’s harder to concentrate and may at worst bar you from doing tasks for which confidentiality is essential, if you are in noisy, shared accommodation. Similarly, the disadvantage may be that you are new to the working environment and have no role model at home to teach you the softer skills of working life. Not being around people who you can pick this up from on a daily basis is going to make it harder to progress.
Many employers are rightly trying to increase the diversity of the people they employ, and increasingly talking about the importance of inclusion, not just diversity. Failing to provide a properly equipped place to work in arguably cuts across that goal of a more inclusive workplace where people are recognised for and able to succeed on their merits, regardless of their background. No employer can eliminate inequality outside the workplace for its staff, but failing to offer an appropriate workplace at all is more likely to perpetuate it. So while it is reassuring that we now know millions can work completely from home when we need to, when we are free to choose, we ought to choose not to.