I was in a session with my coach recently when he mentioned how disciplined he was when he worked is his office at home. This developed into a conversation about just how productive we can be in that environment, free from the distractions of office life. Now, I have worked from home, basically, for the past 20 odd years, so you could be excused for saying that I am somewhat biased – especially as my children have both grown up with this being the norm, and therefore quite conditioned to not bother me when I am in ‘work’ mode. I am also a very clear introvert (for those who know MBTi) and therefore should be more productive and energised when working alone.
But on the way home I started to think about the many times I have heard people who do work in offices say that they had something really important to get finished and that they were going to ‘work from home for a couple of days to ensure it gets done,’ and I wondered whether productivity in the UK is undermined because so many of us work in office environments?
I started with how many people actually work from home. An ONS survey in 2014 stated that nearly 14% of the workingpopulation worked from home, equating to 4.2 million people. However, of this number only 1.5 million actually worked from home as opposed to being based from home but spending little time there, and over two thirds were self employed. It seems that, in a world which considers itself to be more open to flexible working, this is still far from a well used option. So why do we expect so many of our workers to spend their lives in offices?
It seems that for many it is to attend potentially pointless meetings. The Daily Mail published the findings of a survey in April 2015 which estimated that the average worker in Britain will sit in over 6,200 meetings during their career, and that the majority of these are thought of as pointless. The costs associated with these meetings can be high when you take into accounts venue costs, staff time and travel, and this is before you count the opportunity costs associated with the fact that this time is unproductive.
If we look at the costs associated with providing office space this becomes trickier to ascertain. There are on-line calculators available to work out how much an office might cost in various London boroughs. A modest office for 100 employees with reception, kitchen and storage space (no meeting rooms!) can cost from £500,000 to £750,000 a year. Out of London the costs will drop, but for any organisation it is still a significant overhead when compared to the costs of providing reliable phone and high speed broadband connections in a home office.
then we hit the problem of having the necessary space to work from home. It’s all well and good if you can afford a property that either has a spare room, or you have the means to build a purpose built outbuilding, but for the majority of people working in the lower and medium paid roles associated with office working this is a pipe dream, and therefore provision of a working space is a prerequisite for being employed. But if we look at a 2013 study commissioned by Quidco the average worker will actually spend a sixth of their wages every year (roughly £3,500) in expenses directly associated with being at work, a sizeable portion of their overall living expenses which could otherwise be used on rent or, for those lucky ones, a mortgage.
Whichever way we look at it, we also have to accept that humans are, by nature, social animals. Lone wolves like myself may be happy to work in isolation, with occasional meetings and conference calls to maintain contact with work colleagues, but for others it is important to have human contact to draw energy from, and the social interaction with work colleagues creates a sense of membership and belonging that isn’t, as much as we’d like to think otherwise, possible through Skype, facetime and social media. it is for industry to decide if this is important for the wellbeing of the organisation, and sufficient to offset the meeting cultures that saps us of productivity.
Finally we should consider the point of work life balance. It is quite clear that the world of 9-5 has not been a reality for some time, and as the UK opted out of the European work time directive (WTD) it is also clear that placing parameters around how long we can legally work is not a priority. Protecting individual choice to work, or simply paving the way for producing more with less staff? – there are arguments on both sides. Even for those working in offices, the ability to simply switch off and go home has become more difficult over the years – and studies quoted by the Mental Health Foundation show that 13% of UK employees work beyond the 48 hours laid down in the WTD, including office workers who take their work home to complete. It also states that 30% of working people will experience some kind of mental health issue through poor work life balance, and that over 10 million work days per year are lost as a result.
For those who are working from home – most of whom are self employed – the line between personal and work life becomes even more blurred, purely because of the lack of a clear physical disconnection between work place and home. Twenty four hour connectivity to communications and constant access to data and documents mean that for some it can become very difficult to switch off at all, and easy to build a mindset that they are actually ‘always at work’.
So, should we all work from home? it works for me, and for many it works on an ad-hoc basis when focus and lack of distraction is necessary – so maybe we should all work from just a little bit? or is it just me?