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In Focus: 'Work From Home' is here to stay. But is it really good for workers?

Our In Focus series of articles originally appeared in The Leadership Bulletin, a free weekly bulletin for leaders and managers. You can subscribe here.

If you spend much time on business Twitter or LinkedIn, then you have almost certainly seen debates about working from home (WFH). The standard view seems to be that it’s great, and grumpy bosses (or governments) desperate to recreate the pre-pandemic world of offices and commuting are out of touch. But is it really progressive for employees to be working from home, especially if there is no office for them to go to?

The workplace makes its way in to the home.

For centuries, ever since workers made their way from the field to the factory and later the office, it’s been a basic expectation of workers that their employer provides the space in which they work. WFH turns that upside down. Spare rooms, dining room tables and sofas, at our own cost and in our own homes, suddenly become the place of work. We should all be asking how good it is for workers to have our work encroach into our personal space like this, especially in smaller homes.

If employers are moving to WFH or hybrid models and reducing office space, I recommend that they look to re-allocate any savings to support staff working remotely. This could mean buying them a proper desk or office chair, splashing out on hotel conference rooms so team meetings can continue in person, or looking at local hot-desking arrangements with companies like Regus or WeWork so employees have the choice of working at home or in a generic office.

Commuting costs slashed - but heating bills soar.

The trade-off for the workplace making its way in to our home is, of course, the reduced cost and effort involved for employees. Commuting costs fall (sometimes by thousands of pounds per year) and there’s much less effort involved in getting ready for work. Many employers are considering their response to this; in August 2021, Reuters reported that Google may reduce pay for staff who work from home.

Here’s my take: with WFH, employers are basically leasing part of an employee’s home as a remote office. How is it fair to not compensate them for that, but slash their pay instead? The unfairness becomes even more stark when energy bills are soaring and the cost of heating the new “office” falls completely on the employee. This as a recipe for resentment from staff and ultimately creates a window for competitors to come along and offer a fairer and more generous package. Something as basic as an allowance towards energy costs, or some of the mitigations suggested above, could avoid any bad feeling.

“I never knew how tall they were…”

For those of you who had a new member of staff join your team during the pandemic, I wonder: when you finally met them in person, were you shocked by how tall or short they were? It might sound silly, but it’s an example of how only seeing colleagues on a screen dilutes our experience of them. This, in turn, makes workforce team building and bonding much more difficult. We miss out on so many of the things - body language, small conversations between meetings, chatting over lunch - that give colour and depth to workplace relationships.

My concern is that having some employees, especially new employees, work from home can freeze workplace hierarchies as remote members of the team lack the opportunities to properly connect with their colleagues. This could even lead to fewer opportunities for advancement. I am not saying working from home has to be like this, but it’s a significant risk and employees and employers alike should be on the lookout for warning signs that remote employees are being treated differently.

To conclude, there are lots of advantages to working from home. Speaking personally, I rather like it. But too much of the discourse from progressive business leaders overlooks the negative aspects for employees. Sensible employers will consider them now and work with their teams to find a reasonable solution.