It’s been a little over 18 months since the pandemic completely upended life around the world. For office-based businesses across all sectors, the coronavirus outbreak meant that working from home full time suddenly became the new reality. And although for the most part, remote working has been a forced measure, its relative success over the last 18 months has seen firms draw up plans to reduce office space by 30% (according to research conducted by McKinsey).
Personally, I’ve enjoyed the flexibility offered by home working, and have been lucky enough to save money I would have spent commuting into the City. I even found myself to be more productive when it came to specific deliverables. I have friends and colleagues who have been able to spend more time at home with young families and children: all of these are positives afforded by the ‘luxury’ of being able to work from home.
Moving ever so slightly past this utopian veil; working from home for almost two years has also been exhausting. The erosion of boundaries between professional and personal time has lead to reports of employees never completely “switching off” from work. Having to balance the competing demands of work and their personal commitments, without the real-life separation of location, has also had a significant impact. On top of this, there are increased personal costs associated with working from home and potential longer-term impacts on career prospects too. So what is the true cost of working from home?
The ergonomic cost
Enabling employees to work remotely has been an overwhelming success for many businesses, and the flexibility gained is generally considered to have had a positive impact on employee wellbeing. However, working from home isn’t the same for everyone.
Someone working in a flatshare, or sharing their “home office” space with children being homeschooled, has had a very different experience than someone able to enjoy a large home with a dedicated home office space.
The occupational impact for most people has in fact been quite severe. A survey by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) found that a quarter (26%) of remote workers said they were working from a sofa or a bedroom, while just 15% said they were working from a desk. Almost half of those people surveyed working from a bed or a sofa have reported that they have developed muscular problems since working from home.
The monetary cost
All this before we consider the actual cost of working from home on broadband, other utility bills, and even furnishing dedicated workspaces. According to Money Supermarket, one-third of broadband usage is spent on work; which means an average cost of around £11.94 per month spent on working from home. Research conducted on the same survey reported that 31% of Londoners wouldn’t feel comfortable asking for repayment of any of the extra costs associated with home working.
The challenges for ambitious employees
What’s easy to overlook is the cost working remotely could have on career prospects. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that while wages have risen for remote workers, their bonuses and promotional opportunities are lower. It can be more challenging to impress seniors when working remotely, with nuances in communication and leadership qualities being much more difficult to deliver over Zoom. Data before the pandemic showed that those who exclusively worked from home were 38% less likely to have received a bonus than those who never did.
This is perhaps why many law firms and consultancies are mandating their trainees to return to the office, and benefit from the invaluable learning experience of being in the same room and space as their supervisors. It’s difficult to quantify the value of listening in to client calls, negotiations, or even just to walk past colleagues in the office and be able to discuss or ideate matters. As the novelty of remote working wears off, businesses are recognizing the scale of the trade off.
The other, longer-term worry about home working is the impersonal nature of the employee-employer relationship. As Cathy Merrill of the Washington Post opined, home working could make employees less valued and easier to let go.
Getting the balance right
The reality is, the new working landscape forged by the pandemic isn’t linear. Some teams will be much better suited to working remotely than others, and some businesses will thrive in ways that weren’t possible with the rigidity of an office-working environment.
An intangible benefit that the workplace offers is an opportunity to create informal, but meaningful networks, that transcend the transactional day-to-day tasks that work requires. Home working has been an isolating experience for thousands of employees, who relied on the workplace to forge social as well as professional relationships.
For many businesses, we have arrived at a period of reinvention; with employees working outside the office, new policies and processes will have to be drawn up which centres on both employee well-being as well as employer profitability. I suspect it will take some time to get the balance right.