Pandemic brings work pattern problems

Remote working brings big environmental and financial benefits but employers mustn’t underestimate the long-term risks to people’s mental wellbeing. David Burrows reports.

“You’re so lucky.” It is a comment friends old and new have made to me down the years as I describe my life as a freelancer. The picture they have is one of papers and coffee shops, school pick ups and drop offs; of late night moments of inspiration, when words flow – and the wine can too. But no matter: I don’t have to be up for the road rush or cramped commute.

In March, thousands more were plunged into this pool of possibility as the country went into lockdown. Those that had work outside of essential shops and services finally had their wish (if polls of years gone by are to be believed) – flexible working from the comfort of their home.

A survey of 4,000 people by Yougov for Skillcast in May showed 49% of employees in Great Britain were working from home all or most of the time (four fifths of them as a direct result of the pandemic). This was of course terrible news for contract caterers who supply the corporate sector and saw footfall tank overnight as offices were either shuttered or operating at hugely reduced capacity .

And there was worse to come: people said they were loving this new found freedom. A recent survey by Unilever, cited in The Economist, found that half of staff in countries where offices were reopening did not yet want to return.

A follow up survey by Skillcast in August found 67% would like to work from home two or more days a week, while 24% would like to mainly work at the office. The top benefits cited by employees from working from home were having more time by not having to commute (78%), being able to wear more comfortable clothing (62%) and reducing their carbon footprint (58%).

While a simple change in dress code policies would help entice the jogger-loving lot back, those that pre-covid travelled by plane, train or automobile and suddenly found themselves with an extra 65 minutes to play with (or if you live in London 84 minutes) might be harder to satisfy.

That the climate benefits came in third surprised me. With net zero carbon so high profile (and set to be increasingly so in the 12 months between now and COP26 climate talks in Glasgow) this shift could offer big wins. Zero Waste Scotland, for example, had its life cycle experts calculate the impact of no commuting and zero corporate travel on the organisation. After accounting for one-off investments in home office equipment, a continuation of home working for its 150 or so staff would equate to average daily emissions savings of 73% against business as usual.

“Wow,” was chief executive Iain Gulland’s reaction when his boffins showed him the results. But when I spoke to him on the day the results were published, he was more circumspect. “I say to my staff – and I am very clear about this – that this period is not ‘working from home’; this is ‘at home in a pandemic, trying to work’.” 

There is a balance to be struck – and it’s not easy. Those in sectors, like foodservice, where head office staff have been cut and stress levels among those remaining are high, will need to be alert to the dangers for their own workforce, as well as the opportunities among those they cater for.

Some 55% of the employees in the Skillcast research said that they miss socialising with colleagues, while 45% said they found it hard to stay motivated. Indeed, the vision – fuelled often by the big tech firms: Twitter staff can work from home “forever” – that most people will, thanks to covid, work from home most of the time is ebbing away.

This is better news for contract caterers. Numbers in office blocks were growing slowly but surely outside of London before the second lockdown. “We are finding that we are feeding a very high percentage of people in the building – much higher than normal – predominantly because they don’t want to go out,” said one caterer at a recent Responsible Business Recovery Forum. “Once they’re in they don’t want to be going down to the high street and our clients don’t want them to either.”

Brits have, moreso than their European counterparts, been reluctant to return to work. But I sense that more people are realising that staying home isn’t (literally) a walk in the park. It can actually be bad for your health. Isabel Berwick, the FT’s work and careers editor, recently wrote of a coming “blizzard of mental-health problems”. It is likely to hit women hardest. Almost three quarters of mums in Britain have been forced to cut their hours at work because of childcare issues on the back of covid-19. Another survey found that 43% of women are having to combine working at home and childcare, compared to 29% of men.

Again, employers should remain alert. And not least because the “S” of ESG, environmental, social and governance criteria, has been thrust into the spotlight by the pandemic. A recent survey in the US found just 16% of employees were “thriving” in these new working patterns. Mental health has declined, with job satisfaction and motivation also heading in the wrong direction, noted Forbes.

The working day has also become longer. In July, Evan DeFilippis and colleagues at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Massachusetts, produced a working paper based on their study of meeting and email data from more than three million people in 16 cities. In the early stages of the pandemic they found “significant and durable increases” in length of the average workday (up 8.2%, or 48.5 minutes). Whether this is a good thing or not remains moot.

“On the one hand, the flexibility to choose one’s working hours to accommodate household demands may empower employees by affording them some freedom over their own schedule,” the authors wrote. “On the other hand, the change in work schedule may be a consequence of a blurred distinction between work and personal life, in which it becomes easy to overwork due to the lack of clear delineation between the office and home.”

As someone who worked from home for almost a decade, I know how work can creep slowly, steadily and slyly into life outside the 9 to 5. After dinner, I’d pop into the study for a “quick check” of emails; two or more hours later I’d still be there. Cyberspace can suck you in. It takes months, if not years (if ever) to find a balance when you throw the nine to five out the window.

It is far too early to be talking, as Deloitte has, of a “five year acceleration” of remote working. Cracks are starting to appear. Friends that just a few months ago joked about doing conference calls while in the bath now talk of never-ending Zoom meetings as work weeds its way into their life outside the 9 to 5. The agreeable picture some (but not all) had has begun to spoil.

As Gemma Dale, a human resources consultant and lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, told the FT recently: “People’s experiences have been very different from being burnt out to baking banana bread.” After 15 years I’ve landed somewhere in the middle, though there are times when I still burn the banana bread because I’m checking my emails.

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