But as we go into winter, told that there could be six months of ever-tightening restrictions ahead, a desk in a chilly back bedroom or corner of the living room, or a laptop on the kitchen table, are all looking less conducive to a well-balanced life. It’s not just the impact on heating bills of staying at home all day, or the threat of the taxman catching anyone who has taken the opportunity to carve out a space dedicated to home working. It’s the lack of any form of human interaction, especially if there’s no gym open for indoor exercise, or a pub to go to for a chat. And for young people at the start of their careers, needing to learn from working alongside colleagues, the lack of interaction is not just boring, it presents a real block to progress.
Online meetings are fine for a while, to cover the basics. But they leave no scope for creativity, for ideas generated in the informal conversations which are the stuff of office life, or those random encounters which might result in a new deal. For the first couple of months in lockdown, most office-based businesses found they could manage well enough; some even claimed that productivity increased due to less time spent travelling or chatting. But, for most, the ability to stay effective was based on the human and financial capital established by years of team working, goodwill generated through interaction with clients and knowledge shared by colleagues accustomed to face-to-face encounters.
As those reserves of capital were depleted, the phased return to the workplace over the summer held out the welcome prospect of a return to near-normal business life. Employers invested heavily in virus protection, drawing up detailed protocols and work rotas to comply with new guidance, making the workplace as safe as possible to get their businesses back on track and – with luck – resuming growth.
No sooner had they done so than the Government ended its back-to-the-office message. Now, not only are employers’ efforts at virus protection largely wasted, they are being told they must take responsibility for employees’ working conditions at home. The new chairman of the Health and Safety Executive has announced that employers who “ask” their staff to work from home should conduct risk assessments. If sitting at the kitchen table is giving a worker a bad back, the HSE will offer a meeting (on Zoom, of course) to check up on the kitchen furniture and if necessary to take the matter up with their employer.
At this point, employers might reasonably be feeling rather aggrieved. Instead of paying for Perspex partitions, air-conditioning upgrades and hand sanitising stations, it seems they should have been arranging home deliveries of ergonomic desks and chairs for all their staff. In a tough economic climate, with countless firms at breaking point, this is not the news they want to hear.
As with so many of the rules currently being made in Westminster, there are costs attached. Employers may be meeting the bill for now, but as businesses falter and work dries up, WFH may turn out to be very expensive for us all.