Not everyone enjoys working from home. Now, as many of us face the prospect of returning to the workplace, it’s a debate dividing employees down the middle
In the good old days, it might have been a classic water cooler debate. The problem now is that virtually everyone standing around the water cooler is on the same page.
The “detractors” are more likely to be sipping a cuppa in their kitchens before returning, alone, to their laptops. There is no one to debate with... because there is no one else there.
Yes, we are talking — if not directly, via Zoom, or a similar medium — about the great “working from home” debate.
Of course, many people don’t have a choice in the matter, but others who, before the pandemic struck, were office-based have plenty to say.
It is an issue that has been raging since a sombre-faced Boris Johnson first delivered his “You must stay at home” edict to the rapt nation last March. Since that live broadcast to a stunned, frightened populace, so much has changed.
Most notably, the vaccines have helped take away a lot of the fear, although that’s little consolation for those who have lost loved ones to coronavirus prior to the roll out of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs in December.
Attitudes have also changed a lot over the past 16 months.
Some people who were, initially, horrified at the prospect of “WFH” now embrace it with no plans to get back to that water cooler, with savings on childcare and commuting bolstering their stance.
Others counted the days until the office doors reopened — and many are still impatiently waiting for the time when “socialising” and “camaraderie” become commonplace again (although the now-former Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, may have overdone the more tactile aspects of the working environment).
For some employers, including Northern Ireland-based Hughes Insurance, the pandemic brought an opportunity to reassess their business model and cut back on fixed costs and office overheads.
Other firms, such as financial services giant PricewaterhouseCoopers, have opted for a less drastic policy change and are now offering staff the “hybrid model” of choosing which days to “come into work”, if at all.
Now, with the PM’s so-called “Freedom Day” scheduled for Monday — despite Covid-19 infections shooting up at an alarming rate — the debate is set to intensify.
It’s a difficult one for the Conservative Government, many of whose well-heeled benefactors own huge swathes of office space.
Influential Right-wing columnist Richard Littlejohn, from the Tory supporting Daily Mail, has regularly urged people to get back to “work”, although he himself has been working from home for decades.
But while the arguments rage on, there’s one thing to remember: employees have no legal right to work from home, which is good news for some and the last thing others want to hear.
That could change later this year, with Downing Street considering plans to introduce new legislation, meaning that people could continue WFH once restrictions are lifted if they so wish, while employers would be legally required to prove it was essential for staff to attend the workplace. Tori Fitzgerald-Gunn, associate partner at Worthingtons Solicitors, told the Belfast Telegraph that the pandemic has changed working life “beyond recognition”.
“It has introduced working practices that require new levels of practicality, flexibility and sensitivity to employees’ individual circumstances,” she said.
“The pandemic has resulted in work arrangements that employers and employees may have previously considered impossible.
"This rings true for working from home.
“Pre-pandemic, employees may, on occasion, have taken a sporadic day working from home to finalise a particular task, or complete a specific project, without the intermittent interruptions associated with a busy office.
“But working from home for roughly 18 months is likely to have resulted in benefits, for employers and employees alike, which may not have been anticipated, including: a noticeable increase in productivity, healthier work/life balance and money saving, such as travel expenses for employees and rental costs for office space of employers.”
While employees do not have a legal right to work from home, they can request it by way of a flexible working request, for which there is a specific legislative procedure.
“Determining whether working from home can be facilitated will require an assessment of both suitability for the business and the individual employee,” she added.
“Not all employees will revel in the prospect of permanently working from home for varying reasons, for example, mental health reasons, or caring responsibilities, and an employer ought to be cognisant of this.”
In Northern Ireland, the current guidance, summarised on the nidirect.gov.ukwebsite, indicates that employers should complete a Covid risk assessment and take various steps to prevent transmission.
These include ensuring 2m social distancing (or 1m with added precautions); extra hand sanitising facilities; one-way systems to minimise contact; using back-to-back or side-to-side working (not face-to-face); and staggering start/end times.
All retail staff and customers must wear face coverings, unless they’re exempt, but it is not mandatory in all workplaces.
There’s also more detailed guidance for specific industries including construction, hospitality and manufacturing.
For proponents of working from home, the benefits extend well beyond being able to work in pyjamas.
Rather, it affords workers proper independence, with many also claiming they’re much more productive.
Remote workers hone essential skills such as self-motivation, self-discipline, focus and concentration, while becoming masters of communication — from texting to Teams, Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp and many more.
Crucially, they don’t waste hours commuting or having to endure the pains of unrelenting interruptions, loud co-workers and constant chatter of office life.
Yet there are some cons to using the sofa as your office seat, or a work commute that’s just down the hall if a WFH job is your reality.
Diligent workers, for instance, have found that working from home means doing more as opposed to less.
Not having that “separation” of going to and from the office can mean your work day blurs into your home life, and some people have complained that they never really “clock out”. There can also be a sense of isolation or a feeling of not being in the loop because there’s a lot of casual collaboration that happens in an office.
It’s also hard to have an impromptu brainstorming session across the desk if you’re alone at your kitchen table.
With hybrid working systems, “meetings” will have some staff in the office and others not; it’s hardly ideal.
Another common complaint from the home-based staff, apart from “Zoom fatigue”, is the feeling that their opinions aren’t being taken as seriously as those proffered in situ.
Also, when you work from home, co-workers can also be suspicious that you’re not pulling your weight if you’re unable to take a call, or respond to an email quickly.
You may be on another call — or merely responding to the call of nature — yet how do you prove that to cynical minds?
And why should you feel you need to?
It works both ways, however, with anecdotal evidence of WFT-ers being “red-buttoned” by in-office colleagues; something that couldn’t happen in the days when all you had to do was shout across a room.
In summary, there’s no doubt that although WFH gives employees greater flexibility, it also demands a lot from workers in return.
And, as Stuart Anderson, senior policy advisor at CBI NI, explained, WFH is not practicable across the board.
“Throughout the pandemic, office-based firms have rightly prioritised their employees’ wellbeing by following the advice to work at home if you can,” Mr Anderson told this newspaper. “While there’s no doubt that Covid-19 has changed the way we live, work and consume, employers must be able to organise work to meet business objectives.
“Different firms, sectors and working environments all have distinct needs that would make a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach impractical.”
Mr Anderson said employers should work with staff “to identify mutually beneficial ways of working” as we emerge from the pandemic but he stressed that the office is here to stay.
“There’s little doubt that increased flexible working and working from home is here to stay,” he said. “Both can deliver huge benefits, like reducing time lost to travel, promoting work/life balance and lowering stress, often without harming overall productivity and sometimes improving it. But that doesn’t mean that the era of the office is over.
“From training to collaboration, having a physical space to bring workers together remains an important part of working life.
“Offices, even if their purpose evolves over time, will undoubtedly endure and continue to support the town and city centre economies that have sprung up around them.”
Some companies have indicated that they want staff back in the office for more time than employees anticipated, with three days in the office and two remote working days widely mooted.
Indeed, there may well be widespread resistance from workers unwilling to revert to pre-pandemic practices.
Finding working practices to appease everyone will be a complex process; maybe it’s something you should discuss at your next hybrid conference.
For the office: ‘I like to have a separation of home and work life’
Ballymena native Helena Chan (29) is an associate II in the Operate department of PricewaterhouseCoopers in Belfast. She worked from home when the office closed from March to July 2020, but is now based there full-time.
“I worked from home for four months and hated it. From July 2020, we’ve had the option of choosing to come in or stay at home and I’ve been a full-time office employee, Monday to Friday, since then.
“I’ve made friends with the security staff and some of the office management staff. Apart from that, it was just me for a while, but there are now a few people who come in once or twice a week.
“We wear face masks in lifts, on the stairs and while moving around and we adhere to the 2m rule.
“For me, personally, I like the physical and emotional separation of work and home life. I still live with my parents. When PwC was closed, my office was my bedroom and I didn’t like that. I found it so hard. I also don’t have the proper office desk and chair to make it a feasible proposition.
“I wanted to go back to work for the social interaction, to feel part of a team and to have a home/work life separation.
“The firm recently announced the hybrid working model to allow staff to choose what works best for them. It’s good to be given the option to decide as it shows the firm cares about its employees.”
For WFH: ‘I get to see more of my son and am more productive’
SSE Airtricity employee John McCullough (44), from east Belfast, has been working from home since March 2019 and wants to continue to do so rather than commute to the city centre.
“SSE is safety conscious and has been great during the pandemic. It gives me more time to spend with my son Jack (6, left) and it makes it easier to manage childcare.
“There are no cons about the office, it’s more about the pros for working from home.
“Flexibility is the main one. I work in sales and my shift is 9am until 5.30pm. I’m better able to arrange call backs to suit customers now.
“If I was in the office, I’d have to stick to rigid working hours, but now I can make and take calls later if necessary. It gives me a lot more freedom. I’m definitely more productive; I’m exceeding all my targets.
“I also get to see my son more when I’m working from home. It’s win-win.
“I live beside a park. Rather than eat lunch in the office, I can go to the park instead. In work, lunchtime is a dead hour. When you’re working from home, you can do some shopping, get your washing done.
“I don’t miss face-to-face contact with colleagues; I still speak to them on the phone. We also have Zoom meetings and WhatsApp group chats, so we’re not missing out on the banter.
“I prefer working from home and I’d love the opportunity to do it permanently.