Opinion: Is working from home the new normal? I hope not.

For millions of workers, the last few months have been their first experience of regular home working.  For some it’s very liberating, but for those in crowded or unsuitable housing it’s a struggle.

Employers who traditionally don’t allow home working have realised that people can be every bit as productive when working remotely, as they ever were in the office.

Many employees have found that they enjoy it and might not want to go back into the office regularly. So when employers have said they’re in no hurry for a return to the office, it’s music to their ears.

For others though, things aren’t that simple, and permanent home working definitely doesn’t suit everyone. 

Some people just don’t really enjoy working from home (I’m one of them!) but for many people, their ability to work productively and safely from home is affected by their housing situation. 

Working from home

Good wifi, technology that works and a decent mobile phone signal are all a must, but equally important is having the space to work in, and many simply don’t have the room  to do much more than work perched on a sofa or the end of a bed. 

According to the Government, around 679,000 households in Britain are overcrowded. This means having fewer bedrooms, than the household needs, to avoid undesirable sharing and represents around 3% of the 32 million households in the UK. 

On top of this, research by the House of Commons Library estimates that in March 2018 there were roughly 497,000 HMO’s, in England and Wales, housing millions of people. 

For many homeworkers this means,

  • Spending most of their waking hours in their room, with limited access to  shared areas for work. 
  • Struggling with shared wifi connections, background noise and the comings and goings of flat mates and family members. 
  • Desks and work equipment impinging upon an already cramped living space.

So what’s the answer? 

Clearly, working life for many will never go back to exactly how it was before the pandemic, but when making choices about how to structure their businesses, employers should consider the welfare issues for both current and any prospective future employees, including:

  • Physical space and the working environment.
  • Work/life balance and how easy it is for staff to “switch off” at the end of the working day.
  • Employee’s mental and physical health.

There’s also a lot of opportunities to think creatively; why not think about providing memberships for places like WeWork, so staff have a choice of workplaces outside of their home or traditional office setting? 

In the short term, too, the hospitality sector is in desperate need of support. Current regulations permitting, why not suggest to staff that they pop to the local coffee shop, pub or cafe to do a few hours work over coffee and a sandwich? 

In the longer term, Government also needs to think creatively about this issue. If office work really has changed forever, space standards for housing will need an urgent review to account for the space that people are going to need. 

Local authorities and commercial landlords could try and encourage people back into town centres by leasing empty town centre office space and providing desk spaces at subsidised rates for people who want a change from working from home.

Whatever the answers are, both employers and Government will need to take action to protect long term employee health and welfare. 

Peter Salisbury: Director of Housing ConsultingManifest