Are we invested in the business of home-working?

WFH – which as we all know by now is short for ‘working from home’ – is an acronym that was unfamiliar just over 12-months ago. Fast forward a year, and many of us who had it thrust upon them unexpectedly last March, have learned to love it and, dare I say, are now even loath to leave it.

The big question facing Welsh businesses is whether or not working from home will be here for good once life returns to a new sort of normal, but some of the biggest names, globally and closer to home, have already given it the green light.

One of the first to signal a more flexible way forward for its workforce was Twitter, when, quick off the mark in May last year, the company’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, sent an email to his employees saying they had the option of working from home “forever.”  Twitter’s shift to a permanent remote working policy was accelerated by the pandemic and the personal experience of the big boss himself, who admitted to experiencing a lift in his own productivity thanks to working from home.

In the UK, it appears that some of our own big corporates are ready to follow suit. Just the other week, Nationwide, the UK’s largest building society, announced that its 13,000-strong workforce could “work anywhere” in a new flexibility scheme allowing employees more control over their own lives.

COVID-19 has changed the way we work. The virus has broken through ingrained cultural and technological barriers that said we had to be in an office 9-5, Monday to Friday each week and shown us there is a different way to operate. And some of us, it seems, quite like it.

A poll by YouGov towards the end of last year showed that 57 per cent of those who were working before the outbreak, and who intend to stay part of the workforce, said they want to be able to continue working from home – whether that’s some of the time (39 per cent) or all of the time (18 per cent).

Perhaps this is not really that surprising when you consider the benefits of remote working – for the individual, for businesses and for society as a whole.

For many, working from home has led to an improved work-life balance as they enjoy greater flexibility in how they structure their day. It means they’re not tied to having to live close to where they work, giving them a wider range of job opportunities.

Meanwhile, many employers have benefitted from increased productivity and also extended the geographical reach of their recruitment.

And we all could benefit from a cleaner, greener environment as we spend less time and money on the daily commute and more time doing the things we love – whether that’s having the freedom to pick the kids up from school or taking the dog for a lunch time walk.

It is these advantages that have prompted Welsh Government to adopt a progressive approach to the idea of an agile workforce, where people have the option of working from home or in local ‘hubs’ – at least some of the time.

Its ideal is to see 30 per cent of Welsh workers employed in this capacity – where flexibility around where people work from accommodates the needs and wants of employees, while simultaneously being a positive for a company’s bottom line.

Of course, not everyone agrees with this new approach to working. David Soloman, CEO of Goldman Sachs, shared his horror at the thought of his bankers working remotely permanently, describing working from home as an “aberration”, while Google employees in the US are expected to return to offices at least three days a week from September. Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is also cautious about losing the daily commute all together, most likely due to the impact the reduction of footfall will have on our towns and cities.  He warned that employees would “vote with their feet” by turning to a rival, if they were made to work from home all of the time.

And it goes without saying that there are numerous positives of a buzzing office environment that simply can’t be recreated on a Zoom call, no matter how hard we try. Interacting with our peers, sharing ideas, working collaboratively on problems, learning by observing, and just the social interaction that comes from those water cooler moments are difficult to replicate over video platforms, especially when we forget to press the ‘unmute’ button. And I think we’re all getting a little more than fatigued, looking at ourselves on screen, virtual meeting after virtual meeting.

Moreover, working from home is all very well if you live somewhere warm and comfortable, where you can carve yourself out a nice, quiet spot and focus on the task at hand. But, unfortunately, not everyone has this luxury. Trying to concentrate if you are sat in a cold, cramped bedsit without access to a proper desk, chair or lighting is no-one’s idea of progress.

That’s where the Welsh Government’s approach of investing in hubs, which enable people to work close to home, if not at home, comes into its own. The Welsh Government is already investing almost £500,000 in six flexible working sites in the Valleys from its Transforming Towns Fund to pilot this vision, and it is inviting people to contribute to an interactive map to show where they would like other hubs to be established.

Covid-19 has forced us to reassess the way we do things – in business as in life. How we take things from here is now up to us to decide. But wouldn’t it be a wasted opportunity if we didn’t at least question the old way of doing things and take with us some of the unexpected positives that this last year has revealed?

This article was written by Angharad Neagle, our chief executive, and featured in the Western Mail on 05 April 2021.