A colleague at Westminster couldn’t believe it. He was working in Glasgow for a few days and said: “I was on a train around eight in the morning and was dreading the crush but, wow, I got a seat!”
One of life’s bugbears for city workers, particularly in London with a population of nine million, is the time commuting takes. Standing in a hot, cramped carriage for an hour or more at either end of your working day is no fun; it also costs a chunk of your pay in ever-rising rail fares.
Of course, the pandemic has changed the pattern of our working lives and temporarily put a halt to the daily discomfort of crowded commuter trains. Working from home, which has even acquired its own abbreviation, WFH, has become the new normal for many.
But now, as we hopefully put Covid-19 behind us, more workers are being encouraged to resume old routines.
While some are relishing a return to the office society, others are dreading it; parents being able to work and look after their kids is a boon and saves on childcare costs.
Yesterday, research showed workers were reluctant to rush back to the office despite most of the Covid restrictions having been lifted. It said in 31 UK cities fewer than one in five people had returned to their workplace.
Another survey of 2,000 people suggested most had said they had gone back to their offices at least once during the 18-monthlong pandemic. The largest number who had done this was in London, the West Midlands and Northern Ireland, the lowest in Scotland.
Interestingly, this research also said half of those quizzed claimed WFH made them more productive, a view mostly expressed by younger workers, while nearly a third admitted to no longer feeling comfortable sharing a desk with a colleague.
Applications for jobs with remote working have soared, outpacing the number of vacancies, with the proportion of flexible working adverts peaking at the beginning of the year.
Chris Adcock, boss of recruitment firm Reed, said employees had got a taste for home-working and pointed out: “People are twice as likely to apply for a job if it’s advertised as remote.”
He also highlighted the stress of commuting and added: “To get five or 10 hours of your week back, it’s hard to put a price on that.”
Well, companies are beginning to.
Google workers have agreed to a pay cut in return for WFH. A company spokesman told CBS News those staff working in cheaper US cities would see their salaries slashed to reflect their lower cost of living.
The WFH culture is taking hold. Early in June, Apple employees launched a campaign against the company’s plan to bring them all back to the office by September.
Unilever said it expected a hybrid model of working between homes and offices for its 150,000 worldwide staff. Chief Executive Alan Jope said he expected “never going back to five days a week in the office”.
KPMG’s British workers have been told they will be required to be in the office only two days a week while Twitter employees were informed they could WFH – for good.
Home-working is posing a dilemma for governments.
The Conservative administration is consulting on flexible working with a view to introducing an Employment Bill. Early in summer, Labour sought to steal a march, announcing it would “guarantee” a worker’s right to flexible working.
Not for the first time, UK ministers have been accused of “mixed messaging”. Michael Gove suggested the UK would not go “back to the status quo,” referring to hybrid working.
“I suspect…we may see different workplaces allowing people to work from home at certain points as well as coming into the office. There may be changes to the way that we live.”
But Chancellor Rishi Sunak highlighted the benefits of office-working, particularly for young people, noting how this environment had been “really beneficial” to his early career.
Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, made clear he “ideally” wanted all his department’s staff “to be coming in two or three days a week”.
Others are upping the ante to get staff back behind their desks with threats of removing the average £4,000 top-up employees receive for working in London – meant to offset higher living costs – if they don’t return to SW1.
Indeed, one unnamed minister noted how home-workers had received a “de facto pay rise” and so should have their wages cut. Another warned: “People will find those who get on in life are those who turn up to work.”
Unions, not surprisingly, reacted with fury, branding the pay-docking threat the “height of cowardice” and warning any such move could result in strike action.
Downing St stressed there were “no plans” to cut civil servants’ pay; the return to Whitehall would be “gradual”. A spokesman added: “Flexible working is, rightly, here to stay.”
In Scotland, the SNP Government is taking a softly, softly approach, advising people to continue “home-working where possible”. John Swinney, the Deputy FM, suggested there would be a “much greater acceptance of the concept of hybrid working”.
But businesses are worried the WFH culture will hollow out city centres and decimate the so-called “sandwich economy”. Andrew Morrison, from MCC Accountants in Glasgow, said it would be a “hammer-blow for businesses in retail and hospitality”.
Striking a healthy work-life balance has always been difficult but, ironically, the pandemic, that has caused so much misery, might possibly have, for some, opened up a pathway to better achieving it.
Workwise, it looks like we are in for a flexible future. But as always, there will be winners and losers.