With the vast majority of the adult population vaccinated against coronavirus and domestic restrictions relaxed, some in Britain are debating whether those working from home should now be asked to return to the office. For proponents of such a return, there is, however, one major problem: most workers themselves do not want to go back—at least not full time.
The latest research by our team at Redfield & Wilton Strategies, which has tracked the rise in remote work across the world, finds 7 in 10 of those currently working from home in Britain saying they intend to continue working from home full time (34%) or part-time (37%) after the coronavirus pandemic is over. Among those who intend to partially return to the workplace, only a third see themselves working at the office more often than at home. Half intend to work remotely more often, and the rest would like to spend an equal amount of time working in each setting.
One might see these figures as problematic. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has argued that working in person is particularly beneficial to young people, saying he doubts he would have had gained strong relationships with older colleagues early in his career if his summer internships had been over Zoom. Indeed, respondents to our polling are particularly likely to cite the office as better suited for training someone new. Along similar lines, remote workers also generally see the office as superior for maintaining good relationships with their colleagues.
But to focus solely on interpersonal working relationships misses how much attitudes have shifted on other aspects. Remote workers report living more fulfilling and productive lives, saying it is easier when working from home to avoid meetings that waste time, focus on their work, avoid distractions, avoid stress, take breaks, establish a healthy work life balance, and have an active life outside of their work. On the latter points, one might suggest that remote workers are working less than they should be. If anything, the opposite is true. Half of those who have worked remotely during the pandemic say that they find themselves more often working during ‘off hours’ when working from home, compared to a quarter who say otherwise, and that they are more productive, altogether suggesting that many are finding their ideal working arrangements rather than working less.
Furthermore, the superiority of the office with respect to interpersonal relationships does not imply that it is too difficult to maintain working relationships or start new ones remotely. An astonishing 63% of British respondents who are not retired agree with the following statement: “I would feel comfortable working remotely for an organisation or on a work project without ever meeting any of my colleagues in person.” Just 16% disagree. Young people are particularly likely to agree with this statement: 75% of those aged 25-to-34 agree, including 39% who agree strongly.
The world before the pandemic, where commuters squeezed themselves into the Tube or sat in traffic every day to get to work, is not coming back, and that is a good thing. Not everyone—perhaps only a minority of the public even—was suited to the old way of doing things. Now, many workers and businesses have the freedom to figure out where and how they work best. Some may find they need the separation between their home and their work to be productive, or that they feed off the energy of others and like the structure of the office. Others, however, may prefer to be in their own space, without the distraction of their colleagues and without the rigid hours of the office. Many may want a bit of both worlds.
For policymakers, the message could not be clearer. Flexibility is creating a happier, healthier, and ultimately more productive workforce. Embracing this new environment will be critical for policymakers as they seek to encourage economic growth after the pandemic. Everything from tax and labour laws to infrastructure and housing investments should be re-thought and re-imagined in light of this new reality. To harken back to a world that no longer exists and simply encourage workers to return to the workplace may seem a tempting, easy solution, but it would be a costly and wasteful mistake.
This article was also published in The Times.