Home alone: the end of the office?

“Ever since the arrival of broadband in the early 2000s, people have been predicting a revolution in homeworking,” said Joe Moran in The Observer. It always felt a bit oversold to me, too dismissive of our attachment to the physical world – what cyberpunks call “meatspace”; and, indeed, most of us continued to trudge into the office (in 2019, only 5% of us “mainly” worked from home). Then, in March, the “future arrived with a bump” as offices closed, and millions of workers were forced to master video-conferencing and data-sharing platforms overnight. Now there is talk that some of those spaces may never reopen, said The Economist. Employers who used to be reluctant to allow working from home (WFH) have found their concerns about productivity were unfounded, and are eyeing up massive cost savings on office rents. As for their staff, the British work some of the longest hours in Europe, and have the longest commutes. They’d surely welcome a more flexible approach.

It would be a boon to working mothers, and people with disabilities, said Genevieve Roberts in the I newspaper. Parents have a right to request flexi-working, but many have been worried about doing so, given a pervasive culture of presenteeism. If digital working became the default, it could be a big leap to “genuine equality in the workplace”. But there remain serious questions about the impact on those who thrive in an office environment – and there are plenty of them, said Tom Welsh in The Daily Telegraph. People with spacious homes and established careers might love to work at home. But for young people living in small flats, the office is not only a convivial environment; it is a place where they can exchange ideas, pick up tips from more experienced colleagues, learn about the wider corporate context – and show off their skills. All that is imperilled if their seniors aren’t there.

The appetite for home working may, in any case, be overstated, said Simon Usborne in The Guardian. In a recent poll, 60% of respondents said they’d go back to the office now if they could. Some people feel lonely working at home, and worn down by the lack of a clear work-life divide. Others feel stifled by the monitoring software firms are increasingly using to check staff are working. We have to accept that in future, more people will work at home at least some of the time. Offices will get smaller. But firms should be wary of closing them. Productivity may hold up in the short term, but as staff morale sags, it could go into sharp reverse.