For many of us it’s been a revelation that so much of what we used to go into the office for can be done in a reasonably satisfactory way at home.
Many people are enjoying the experience, saving money and seeing more of their immediate family, and don’t want to go back to long and expensive commutes.
Recent surveys suggest that a majority of respondents want a more flexible pattern of work in the future, perhaps attending offices two or three days a week while working at home the rest of the time. Some employers seem to support this idea, thinking particularly of cost savings from cutting back on office space.
Source: Robert Walters
But we should be cautious in going overboard for home working. Although surveys suggest that many individual employees think they have been more productive at home than in the office, this is not necessarily borne out by others’ perceptions.
Many of us have found it very difficult to contact businesses and government bodies during lockdown, and have experienced delays in getting responses on important matters.
And employers have reported difficulties in recruitment processes, team-building, innovating and motivating workers.
Surveys reported that only 9% of businesses thought productivity had increased, while 33% thought that it had decreased.
Of course, there were variations from industry to industry, but in only one industry – unsurprisingly, information and communication – did more businesses think productivity had increased than that it had decreased.
Should home working continue at higher levels post-pandemic, there will be wider changes in the economy.
Some are pretty certain: for example, fewer commuters will damage the finances of the transportation industry.
Others are perhaps less obvious: some researchers have coined the word ‘Zoomshock’ to draw attention to some of the wider effects on our big cities of more people working at home.
They point to the considerable amounts of ‘locally consumed services’ (LCS) on which office workers spend: coffee shops, restaurants, after-work drinks and meals, retail outlets, gyms, theatres and so on.
If half of commuters work at home two days a week, this alone means a 20% fall in potential demand for LCS, with knock-on effects on employment.
It’s also likely that in the medium-term reductions in commuting will lead to people moving home. If you’re not going to commute as often, you may want to move further away from the center, where house prices are lower and you can afford to buy more space for your home office.
Over time house prices outside major population centers may rise relative to those in the big cities.
Past experience suggests that people aged over 30, especially those with families, are more likely than others to move further out.
Over a decade or so this will tend to make the population of cities younger. This will have implications for public services, rates and tax – and the accompanying politics.
Patterns of pay may also change. If people further out from the big cities can now work largely at home, they can compete with those closer in. This may tend to increase relative pay in some outlying areas. Conversely, this increase in competition may lead to a fall in relative pay of those closer to traditional centers of employment.
Young people concentrated in cities, may find it increasingly difficult to find jobs at all as many low-paid service jobs – for example, those in retailing, where there has been a huge increase in internet sales – will disappear along with the commuters.
All predictions are speculative, but if we do decide to stay working at home in the larger numbers many are expecting, there will certainly be consequences which we need to start to think through.