Comment

Business is discovering the cost of home working

Less a natural evolution than an imposition by the Government, many firms are merely staying afloat

What is the Government more concerned about - a second wave or the economy? It’s hard to figure out.

It almost beggars belief that more than six months after the pandemic began, ministers have yet to find ways of better reconciling the two.

Instead, they pull both ways. From tax and spend to return to work, quarantine and lockdown, mixed messaging and confusion remain the order of the day.

Go back to the office and help save the economy, the Government urges, but how can this be done while social distancing remains in place and ministers warn that crowding together in confined spaces, such as commuter trains, may spark a renewed outbreak?

Much office space is condemned to working at no more than half capacity as long as social distancing is required, and some tower blocks, reliant as they are on transporting workers at speed between floors by elevator, a good deal less. What in any case is the point of coming back to the office if social distancing removes many of the team building benefits of physical interaction?

It is primarily this constraint, not the attractions of home working, that keeps employees away.

The Government cannot have it both ways; it either thinks the pandemic a still clear and present danger to life and the NHS, or it thinks the risks to the economy of continuing as we are the more potent threat.

I’m pretty sure I know which, yet ministers run around like headless chickens, apparently terrified of what their scientific advisers might say, or worse still, the opinion polls, if they engage properly with a back to work strategy.

Instead they act like Wilkins Micawber, vainly hoping that something will turn up to rescue them from a problem largely of their own making. A vaccine would do the trick, they say, or perhaps mass, instant diagnostic testing. That too may save us. Indeed it might, but in the meantime, it is like waiting for Godot. They can’t even get their act together on common-all-garden swab testing; what hope for 20-minute spit tests?

Let the fit, young and healthy work as normal, and the vulnerable make their own choices as to what risks they should take. This has been the obvious solution from the start, yet we have allowed ourselves to be guided by China’s brutalist example of economically crippling lockdown. 

As it is, there is something faintly distasteful about the growing social divide between the largely middle and upper middle class stay at homers, and the massed ranks of generally lower earning “essential” service, distribution, transport, health and construction workers who have been operating normally throughout the pandemic so that the rest of us don’t starve to death while overdosing on Netflix and Zoom.

No doubt some people enjoy working remotely, do so perfectly effectively, and are reluctant to go back to the hassle of the commute for all but essential business meetings. The pandemic has opened their eyes, and those of their employers, to the possibilities.

Yet in truth it is much more government imposition than natural evolution which is driving the switch. First the Government told non-essential workers to stay at home if they could. OK, so that instruction has now been lifted, but much of the social distancing regime that makes office working hard to revive is still in place. This is the primary reason why firms are finding it a challenge. Pre-existing office space can no longer accommodate all employees within prescribed safety measures.

Again, some firms will no doubt find that it suits them to have part of the workforce permanently work from home, saving on office space, and in the long term enabling them to shift employees onto less costly, freelance contracts.

But many bosses already complain of the loss of spontaneity, creativity, innovation, trust among colleagues and can-do drive that results from extensive remote working.

For most companies, the past six months have been about little more than staying afloat. All else has been put on hold. Home working has proved perfectly adequate for this style of operational management. But it is questionable whether it would work quite so well in an expansionary phase.

The same risk aversion we have seen afflicting the population as a whole has infected business decision making, mortally wounding capital investment and hiring intentions. The animal spirits we so desperately need to get the UK economy going again may not be compatible with the advent of extensive home working.

In any case, the apparent attractions of working remotely in terms of reduced corporate costs and employee convenience need to be weighed in the balance against the wider economic negatives. What seems good for an individual firm or employee isn’t necessarily good for the economy as a whole if ancillary jobs are widely lost in the process.

The shift to home working is not the result of some natural evolutionary process which has been turbo-charged by the pandemic, but has been forced on the economy by government instruction. And like much government meddling in the economy, it is very unlikely to serve us well.

Should businesses encourage their employees to return to the office? Tell us in the comments below