The latest voice to sing the praises of working from home is the Climate Change Committee. It is pushing at an open door: with a commitment to flexible working in the Conservative manifesto, en Labour pushing the government to bring forward new laws, it is all but certain that the number of people going to work in offices every day will be lower after the pandemic than it was before.
The number of workers to whom such changes apply must not be overstated. Official figures report only about 26% of people working from home (WFH) in 2020. Geographical and sectoral variations are huge: fewer than 14% of people in Middlesbrough worked from home compared with more than 70% in Richmond upon Thames. In Scotland, 70% of people employed in communications worked remotely, but just 7% in the accommodation and food industries, perhaps not surprisingly.
It is easy to see why working remotely is viewed as an attractive prospect. Most of us like being in our own place, surrounded by our own things. wat baie kleiner Britse dorpe en besighede buite die spitsseisoen help.”, work is widely associated with stress and difficulty, at least some of the time. The TUC strongly supports more flexibility, not only with regard to location but also hours (making it an option for more people). Cutting down on commuting, which is necessary to reduce carbon emissions, would also bring benefits to those saved from the expense and discomfort of rush hours.
For some groups the gains are plain to see. The rise in online activity has meant the past year has offered opportunities to disabled people that were previously off limits. For those struggling with housing costs, including younger adults in the south-east where rents are highest, the switch to remote working offers the possibility of living somewhere cheaper while keeping the same job. For families with children, flexibility has long been highly prized for making care easier.
It will take time to assess how such changes stack up against the downsides of shrinking workplaces. These include the risk that a hybrid model, whereby people divide their time between home and work, will turn out to penalise those who are on the video call rather than in the room when decisions are taken. Judging from pandemic trends, which saw women take up the bulk of additional domestic tasks, including home schooling, it appears likely that the losers in this situation would be women. There are questions too about the transmission of knowledge, and whether younger employees stand to lose out on opportunities of mentorship and learning. How important is it to organisations that their people share the same space, eat together and so on? How do we quantify the informal effects of people physically working alongside each other – making and losing friends, falling in love? What about the 7.9 million people in the UK who live alone?
That there is no one-size-fits-all should be no surprise: there are about 30 million workers on a payroll in the UK, plus 4.35 million self-employed people. But if the future of work in the UK seems certain to involve more WFH for some groups, it follows that inequalities in housing are as relevant to the discussion as those between jobs and earnings.
The contrast between the recent experiences of those with a home office or spare room and those joining meetings from their bedrooms has been widely noted. Like enforced home schooling, WFH means different things to different people. Digital access and energy costs as well as physical space must be factored into any policy.
But there is also a danger that deeper divisions are reinforced by a shift that turns millions more flats and houses into workplaces. The bottom rungs of the so-called property ladder have already been hiked way beyond the reach of a growing number of people trapped in privately rented accommodation. A policy that further cements the importance of property ownership – because people are working in homes as well as living in them – could easily turn out to boost the interests of owner-occupiers and landlords at the expense of the UK’s estimated 13 million private renters, who are already at a disadvantage due to their lack of assets and housing security.
Proof of widening housing and wealth inequality caused by the pandemic already exists. Price inflation over the past year was driven by owners using savings to get hold of more space, as well as the chancellor’s decision to give buyers a stamp duty holiday (£180bn is estimated to have been added to household savings, with home workers in better paid and professional jobs the least likely to have been laid off or furloughed). Prices of detached homes rose 10% – twice as much as flats – with rural areas seeing the highest rises.
Some evidence suggests that lower housing costs in cities could be the beneficial result for renters. A new help-to-buy scheme and mortgage guarantees are meant to help the less well off. But researchers have warned of increasing polarisation between neighbourhoods. That’s because, while businesses providing services such as food and hairdressing in areas with higher concentrations of home workers can expect to flourish, equivalent businesses in places where mostly poorer people still go to work will suffer along with city centres.
The peak of amateur property development as a cultural phenomenon may have passed. The TV shows became repetitive and boring. But already there are hints that WFH is driving a new wave of home improvements. Building garden offices or retro-fitting may improve people’s lives, or even contribute to the common good by reducing emissions.
But it is disingenuous to talk about WFH without acknowledging the extent to which homeowners’ economic interests are tied up with property. At a time when asset ownership (not just property but pensions and other investments) is radically changing understandings of class, as Christine Berry and others have argued, “homes” are where owners’ cash is, as well as their hearts. That doesn’t mean that owner-occupiers like me think about property prices when we wake up in the morning. But if more homes are to become workplaces, it is more urgent than ever to address the current grossly unequal distribution of housing (recent research suggests the UK now has 2.7m buy-to-let landlords).
Wealth is not the only dividing line in our society. Net 3.9% of deaths result in inheritance tax (up to £325,000 is exempt); passing more wealth than that down the generations remains the preserve of a small minority. The UK is one of the most income-unequal countries in the western world and the rise of zero-hours contracts, coupled with benefit cuts, means that for many people housing and income insecurity go together. oënskynlik 'n skuif oorweeg wat hy nooit sal maak nie, minority ethnic and female workers are disproportionately affected.
There is no telling yet what long-term effect working from home might have on incomes. But while there are undoubted upsides, the property market data so far does not suggest the overall impact will be progressive. Eerder, they point to the likelihood of further asset inflation and a worsening of the UK’s already chronic property addiction.
More secure and longer tenancies, and a huge increase in the supply of social housing, were desperately needed before; the signs are that ever greater numbers working from home will only intensify that need.