Working from home: how it changed us forever

I’ve read and thought more about office life over the last two years than I have at any time over the previous two decades when I worked in one. I say worked, but of course from this distance I can see that what I called office work might not quite stand up in a court of law, being comprised of equal amounts gossip, tea-runs and shouting passive aggressively at computers, alongside the clattery typing I am paid for.

There was a moment, in those early pandemic days, the days of shock and clapping, before the felt-tip rainbows in our windows faded to a ghostly grey, when the closure of offices felt like an opportunity. The future of work might find efficiency in compassion – it might not be focused on cities or require five-day weeks, or offices with dubious rat control. For many of us, once we had cleared a decent space at the kitchen table and evacuated our children, working from home for the first time in our lives was a revelation. Yet every day brought another small hurdle, a step forward in our psychosocial development.

Zoom meetings required a new kind of listening, along with the daily shock of our large, lined face at rest. The fashions we’d cultivated were now obsolete. Bras and heels and other such fripperies seemed suddenly absolutely ridiculous, and Zoom style (bold accessories and jazzy jumpers) took hold. We learned how to translate the nuanced opacity of a colleague’s Gchat in under three hours. Once we’d clarified that our bosses were human, and not of the Pimlico Plumbers founder’s mould (“The virus has turned millions into selfish, cowardly liars who don’t give a damn about their fellow citizens so long as they can hide away at home while continuing to get paid,” he said in 2020) we felt confident enough to fold our days into new shapes that allowed such luxuries as a mid-afternoon dentist appointment. And still, still we did our work. Better, some say. Faster, without the grim commute or distraction of eight other people’s failing relationships, or emails about toilets and printers and “please refrain from leaving plates in the sink”, or the exhausting knowledge that at any moment the person you fancy from the post room might appear and you’ll have to look up, glittering and fabulous.

Though England has ended its work-from-home guidance, this time, surely, for good, we won’t forget what we learned, the new ways of communicating, the particular realisations about our own mangled productivity, the importance of switching off when the work day ends. But nor will we forget what we missed about office culture, and what we appreciate afresh – the thrill of really good gossip, the unlikely community there, the change that happens when you leave the house. As many British office spaces remain vacant, it is projected that one in 10 will no longer be required by 2027, which suggests that while the grand work revolution is yet to emerge, a smaller shift, allowing a flake of flexibility, has taken place. One that has unearthed, among the coffee cups and charger cables, some dusty humanity.

One of the most enduring and intractable problems of British society is housing. There aren’t enough homes in the places where – for economic and sometimes social reasons – there is the greatest demand. This means London and some other big cities such as Bristol, Manchester and Edinburgh, Cambridge and Oxford, the south-east. Decades of attempts to build more homes in and around these hotspots repeatedly founder on local opposition (some of it reasonable, some of it not) to development. Too little gets built, and at too high a price.

Working from home offers the attractive prospect of at least partly addressing this problem without laying a brick. If you only have to go into your office three days a week, it’s tolerable to live further away, in less overheated parts of the country, where the use of existing housing stock is slacker. A house, a garden – things which should not be unattainable dreams – might become affordable to those previously excluded from them. If you can’t bring more affordable houses to where people are, in other words, perhaps people can choose places where affordable houses are.

Other benefits would follow. People working from home might contribute more to their local economies and their famously suffering high streets by spending the money that they would otherwise be handing over to a big city Pret a Manger. They might have the time and mental space to be active members of local communities. It can only be a good thing if daily mass commutes become less intense. There would be environmental advantages to putting existing buildings to good use rather than building new homes.

There are also drawbacks to this redistribution of human and financial energy. It can simply mean gentrification on a national scale. One of the less happy effects of the pandemic has been the pressure on notable beauty spots in places like Cornwall and Wales, as well-off buyers seek rural idylls for their remote working, further squeezing locals out of the housing market.

There are plenty of jobs that can never be done remotely, often poorly paid, and relocation to less-expensive parts of the country is no kind of solution to the housing issues of those who do them.

But there has never been any one solution to something as big, complex and multi-faceted as the housing crisis. What is the case is that there are many parts of the country where two- and three-storeyterraced houses can cost a tenth of what otherwise identical homes sell for in London. The disparity presents opportunities that shouldn’t be lost in thestrange urge to rush back to five-day-a-week commuting.

In Boris Johnson’s Peppa Pig speech last November, an event so much outshone by subsequent scandals that it seems to belong to another era, he hinted that people who partly work from home might be called twats, on the basis that they come into their offices only on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Instead of throwing out cheap insults, he should salute them for their role in helping with one of the many problems his government is failing to solve.

In the summer of 2021, the north-west-based chef Gary Usher crowdfunded a new business. There was nothing new in that; he’d done it numerous times for his restaurants. On this occasion, however, it was to fund a different kind of enterprise: one that would prepare and deliver the meal kit boxes that had got him through the pandemic. “There’s no doubt that the lockdowns created an entirely new revenue stream for restaurant businesses like mine,” Usher says. He did bigger trade in those kits over Christmas 2021, despite there being no lockdown, than he did in 2020, when there was a lockdown. It has, he says, continued into January.

People have discovered the joy of importing restaurant-quality food into their homes even if, or perhaps even because, it requires a little finishing at home. Companies like Dishpatch, which works with well-known chefs including Michel Roux Jr, Angela Hartnett and Ravneet Gill to create ambitious meal kits, are thriving. Meanwhile, takeaways have become ever more sophisticated, and there have even been major advances in recyclable and compostable packaging. For the food sector, innovation in food delivery is the big dividend of the pandemic.

For restaurants, the picture is much more mixed. “The positives are that demand remains strong,” says Kate Nicholls of industry body UKHospitality. “When restrictions are lifted, diners do want to come out and have a good time.” But it depends on location. The centre of London is in a dire state, with trading at only 20% to 30% of normal. In other city centres, it’s around 60%. It’s in the suburbs, closer to where people actually live, that business is building healthily.

But the restaurants themselves, robbed of Christmas business by Omicron and battered by staff shortages and food price inflation, may not be so healthy. “A third of hospitality businesses have no cash reserves,” Nicholls says.

What’s more, they are trading into massive headwinds. “Both the lower VAT rate for hospitality and the rent moratorium will finish at the end of March,” Nicholls says. “Plus, there’s the increase to the national living wage, and the energy bill hike. It all amounts to a 13% cost price hike in the sector.” Diners may be ready to eat out; a lot of the restaurants may no longer be there to feed them, without continued government support, she says.

Which leaves many of us at home, interrogating our own kitchen skills. There’s no doubt there’s been an awful lot of that, perhaps by necessity. The growth in retail food sales at the big supermarkets has been marked, up 5.4% year on year in 2020, then up again another 3.1% in 2021. In a retail market worth more than £90bn, this is an enormous increase in spend on food to be consumed inside the home rather than outside. But what are people doing with it all?

If cookbook sales – which saw double-digit percentage increases – are anything to go by, they are trying to improve their repertoire. As we finally emerge from restrictions it seems many of us have become rather better, and rather more ambitious, cooks. And all thanks to a virus.

The difference between imagining going back to the office – sometime – and the announcement that we are to go back, is like night and day. A languorous exploration of what an individual was wanting, looking forward to or dreading, allowed for all possibilities: it will be good to see everyone, I will hate the journey, I hope the office venting is sound, I can’t wait to have my lunch out and be part of an old but new physical ambience. The envisioning was abundant.

Being able to challenge five days of relentless commuting and the juggling of domestic life had sparked creative solutions inconceivable two years ago. Some had babies in lockdown and can’t imagine leaving them even for a few hours. Others were desperate to leave their childhood bedrooms or demanding partners who didn’t take one’s work as seriously as their own. The anticipation of being a little more separate was intoxicating for those who didn’t want to see their schleppy partner, or themselves, in joggers endlessly, who didn’t want another’s moods or needs constantly on show. The chance to sparkle, to get away from the domestic, from all those meals and dishes, was a magical fantasy.

But there was also an ennui. Will we go back to the office only to find ourselves returning to the home again? Is the dangerous phase really over? Will we be gearing up only to deflate again? What kind of choices and personal agency will I have? How do I protect my vulnerable colleagues?

Then the announcement came. You will return to work. No exemptions, unless your work decides it. An excitement and a chill. A fear as well. Will I lose the easy sharing and continuity I have with my partner, where we have to come to know what each other actually does daily as well as the triumphs and grinds of the jobs we do? Will it be akin to riding a bike or do I have to learn new social codes? What will it be like to be in the same room as my boss, students, co-workers? How will I respond to their smells, their looming, their presence and a work etiquette so different from bendy boundaries of work-from-home?

Last spring I was approached by a few HR departments of large companies to prepare seminars for staff on returning to work. Interestingly, nothing came of the initiatives. It simply wasn’t real enough to be happening, and the more pressing need was to help staff with the psychological changes – both helpful and difficult – that the stop-go of Covid was creating for the new geographies of work. It needed to address present dilemmas, not prospective ones.

Work was and is where many live, thrive, have their struggles, have their identities affirmed or negated or some mix of the two. Now that the injunction to be at the office is seriously on the table, discussions are more focused on the practicalities of avoiding rush hour or finding childcare again and on the nervousness of leaving one’s nest, how to get as much work done as one was doing when not commuting, managing one’s boss’s expectations and so on.

The passion many Observer readers bring to work will be recast in the following weeks as the balance between togetherness and separation on the home front is recalibrated. Expect confusion, relief, pleasures and frustrations. In other words, life. We make it where we find it, rarely in conditions of our own making but which we mould as much as we can to satisfy ourselves.

The high street limped into the pandemic and the edict to work from home caused a retail earthquake. Shops were already closing and, two years of turmoil later, it has turbocharged the shift to online shopping and cost the high street billions of pounds of trade. In February 2020 online sales were around a fifth of retail spending, but by that Christmas they would be 37%. The easing of restrictions has seen that number fall back to 28%, but it is a dramatic shift in the balance of power that will affect the long-term financial viability of some high-street outlets.

The hiatus forced people to replace shopping trips with clicks and buy everything from groceries to wardrobe updates (read tracksuit trousers and slippers) to toiletries and cars, online.

This topsy-turviness, with so much time spent in our houses and flats, also had a dramatic impact on the profile of spending as people diverted cash spent on foreign holidays and socialising into room makeovers and garden projects.

With social lives on hold, the going-out look was ditched in favour of cosy comfort. The trend was writ large in John Lewis’s annual shopping report as demand for slippers, pyjamas and dressing gowns rocketed while the casualties included neck ties, briefcases, makeup bags and thongs.

But if people were less invested in how they looked, the opposite was true of their homes. Lockdowns turned homewares into fast fashion used to dress home offices for work Zoom calls. This focus on home and hearth in 2021 saw an extra £500m spent in DIY stores, while the country’s 1.2 million new gardeners spent an extra £50m on plants, sheds and decking.

This tilt to the web was the final nail in the coffin for big high street names already on the ropes, with Debenhams and Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia shutting all their stores, following BHS.

House of Fraser and John Lewis are still standing, but the department store model, with its fragrant beauty counters and huge expanses of fashion, has been shaken hard by restrictions that made it hard to try on clothes or smell perfume, or basically take any enjoyment from shopping. It will be difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.

With restaurants, cafes and pubs often off limits, the pandemic also signalled big changes for supermarkets. The big weekly shop came back with a bang while other consumers, including older shoppers, embraced home delivery for the first time. After going through the initial pain of setting up accounts, many are converts.

With the number of empty stores at a record high, the pandemic has left scars on nearly every high street and shopping centre. But despite the gloom it is too early to deliver the postmortem because the sands are shifting again as last week’s reports of downturn at lockdown winners Peloton, the trendy exercise bike maker, and Netflix attest.

In the UK Aldi is ditching Deliveroo’s delivery services because shoppers are returning to its stores. This is likely to be a trend as the cost-of-living crisis sees people seek out cheaper stores. We get the high street we deserve, so use it or lose it.

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