As the COVID-19 pandemic has dragged on for longer and many of us have, to some degree, at least, gotten used to the idea of working from home, people and businesses alike are asking themselves how the nature of work will change in the future.

At first glance, it would appear that big business has certainly taken a liking to the idea of people working from home for a few days of the working week.

The e-commerce giant Amazon, for example, has decreed that employees in its corporate and technology divisions can work from home two days a week. Apple has recently instituted a similar policy, although it has not been altogether without controversy as the Delta variant continues to spread.[1]

The virtues of working remotely are often seen as something of a no-brainer: no commuting and an increase in productivity are things few would not get behind, especially if all that can be achieved by staying at home, sipping on a cup of our favorite coffee as we plough through the tasks of the day, getting food delivered from our favorite restaurants on time for our lunch breaks.

As many of us will no doubt have experienced for ourselves, there is more than this to working from home. According to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, workers found that issues such as the lack of communication with colleagues and physical exercise, as well as distractions at work, contributed negatively to their experience of working from home, as can well be expected.[2]

The ideal of working from home does indeed seem to be built around a home environment with very few distractions, where we are able to isolate ourselves from our other obligations and concentrate on work.  Such conditions do not come cheap, as one might expect.

Apart from the issue of space, there is also the matter of workplace safety. In an office environment, one’s employer is responsible for keeping employees up to speed with safety procedures and ensuring that workers can carry out their duties with as little risk to themselves as possible. When it comes to working from home, however, the situation is far more ambiguous: if an employee slips and falls at home during working hours, who is ultimately responsible? Can employers reasonably be expected to check every home for potential hazards? More broadly, if people always take work home with them, how do they switch off at the end of the working day?

Another factor in helping offices stay afloat, perhaps rather predictably, is money:  as The Economist points out, developers and investors are scrambling to get their buildings up to scratch in anticipation of the new demands imposed upon them by people returning to the office in greater numbers. Sought-after amenities include outdoor spaces and better ventilation.

That does not mean, however, that those numbers will be as great as before: as companies reconsider their need for office space, with employees having become accustomed to working from home, there is plenty of vacant office space to go around. So far, 18% more office floor space has been lost around the world than during the 2007-2009 financial crisis. [3]

All this means that those with a horse in the race of office real estate will no doubt bend over backwards to make returning to the office an attractive proposition for as many companies as possible. What may well change, however, is that both companies and office landlords will have to think of the office experience in terms of added value. Since working is no longer confined to any given physical space, workers may well feel that going to the office should be worth it, instead of something to be tolerated as part of the daily grind.

With all these questions in mind, and with working from home having some significant, proven drawbacks, it is far too soon to declare an end to the era of the office. One could even go as far as to say that working in an office is an easy solution to many of the problems workers face when choosing to work from home.

As is often the case, it is likely that the truth lies somewhere between the extremes. Those who can work from home will–no doubt–enjoy an increase in freedom and flexibility, but are unlikely to want to miss out completely on workplace camaraderie and the chance for a change of scenery now and again, not to mention the freedom to play slightly different roles at work and at home, with the lines between them defined clearly enough so as not to cause conflict.

If the pandemic has taught us anything about how we work, it is probably that some things are best kept outside the workplace, as evidenced by everything from Members of Parliament urinating during work calls [4]to toilets heard flushing during sessions of the US Supreme Court.[5]

Some boundaries are in place for a reason and for all the possibilities of working from home, we are unlikely to want to give up on them anytime soon.

 

 

 

[1] Ghaffary, Shirin. “Internal Apple Letter Shows Employees Are Still Fighting to Work from Home.” Vox, 19 July 2021, www.vox.com/recode/22583549/apple-employees-petition-work-home-employee-activism.

 

[2] Xiao, Yijing, et al. “Impacts of Working From Home During COVID-19 Pandemic on Physical and Mental Well-Being of Office Workstation Users.” Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, vol. 63, no. 3, 2020. Wolters Kluwer Public Health Emergency Collection, doi:10.1097/JOM.0000000000002097.

 

[3] The Economist. “What a Work-from-Home Revolution Means for Commercial Property.” The Economist, 3 June 2021, www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2021/06/03/what-a-work-from-home-revolution-means-for-commercial-property.

 

[4] Romero, Dennis. “Canadian Politician Seen Urinating during Virtual Meeting.” NBC News, 29 May 2021, www.nbcnews.com/news/world/canadian-politician-seen-urinating-during-virtual-meeting-n1269052.

 

[5] BBC News. “US Supreme Court Hears Toilet Flush during Oral Arguments – a First.” BBC News, 7 May 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52572986.

 

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