The genie has left the bottle but Cummings hasn’t noticed……
One of the things that will change the world post-COVID 19 is the number of people working from home – “homeworking” or “télétravail” – whatever the world’s populations choose to call it. I’m sure there will be a thousand different new names for the phenomenon which is, of course and as with many modern “discoveries”, not new..
In May 1977 I left the British Army to join IBM as a salesman and, after some months of training (the first of many courses), I was allocated my “patch” and began officially working from home. I had a company car; my telephone bills were paid and my expense notes stared from the moment I left the house. This was very tax efficient at a time when it was totally acceptable to minimise one’s tax liability and even to admit it!
This was before the age of mobile phones and personal computers. I used to call in to the office four times a day, if my memory serves me well, to pick up messages and our unit of about 10 salesmen would meet up every Friday afternoon in a non-descript IBM facility in Millbrook, Southampton. I had an entitlement of half a desk which was only ever used to make telephone calls during periods when I was involuntarily office-bound. We would also have branch meetings in Richmond, Surrey – probably every month – and various events throughout the year for training purposes and the annual one-week convention somewhere abroad. The system functioned perfectly, as far as I was concerned, and the proof was in the performance.
On leaving IBM in January 1985 I started various businesses around the world, many of which required employees of all types to work from home. So, it is with some bemusement that I hear people wondering how many will manage working permanently from home, for various reasons including the facilities they lack and to which they have become accustomed. Moreover, the recent pleas from the Prime Minister that people should now go back to work seem to me to be strikingly naïve.
It’s true that places of communal work and education serve major social functions, in that they allow people to meet beyond family, class and geographic boundaries. But, people, I am sure, will always find a way to manage their social lives (as we see so well with social media) and, after a few months of working mainly from home, many advantages for the employee will become apparent. Here are a few suggestions:
- No travel expense. This single advantage has meant, during the COVID 19 crisis, that many people have actually been better off financially than they were even if furloughed!
- If home is designated as one’s workplace, then expenses can be claimed from the moment one leaves home to go to any work destination, including the office.
- Some office expenses can be charged to the company, within reason.
- Possible savings on child care.
- Genuine savings on meals and “obligatory” drinks after work.
- No travel time – how about avoiding two hours a day walking to the station, getting the train, walking to the office, etcetera
- More freedom; in terms of time management – working through one evening to allow time for cycling in the morning in terms of dress code – Skype need only capture one’s head and shoulders.
- More time with the family – though that might be a disadvantage for some.
I’m sure others can find many more advantages than I have for the employee, but now let’s look at the advantages for the employer:
- Reduction of office space.
- Savings in heat, light, drinks, rates etcetera
- Better employee motivation (in the right case) and greater loyalty to the employer
- Healthier workforce
- Better productivity – how much time is wasted on the social aspects of work
- Meaningful group meetings – it is actually good to meet your colleagues now and again and to share stories that are new news!
Again, the list of benefits for the employer may be much longer than that which I have spent a few minutes producing. But, now let`s look at just some of the advantages for society as a whole:
- Lower property prices in cities as offices get turned into flats, for example. That means that those who have to work in cities might actually be able to afford to live there.
- Less infrastructure: canteens, coffee machines, childcare facilities, cleaners…to be provided.
- Less traffic, pollution, noise, time wasted and, importantly in times of any virus, less crowded public transport.
- More flexible workforce – no need for prospective employees to move to accept a new job.
- Better use of technology leading to a faster roll out of advanced functionality (cloud computing, security, 5G…)
The government is urging people who no longer need, want or can to go back to work at their erstwhile workplaces and even to use public transport to do so! This is a splendid example of delusional “group think” emanating from the elite clique in Whitehall. What the government should be doing is actually seizing this opportunity to improve people’s lives, modernise working practices and transform society for the better.