We’ve heard so much lately about the benefits of remote or hybrid working. How it improves work-life balance because it saves on all those hours wasted commuting, which can be put to better use and of course it makes popping out to collect the children from school or nursery so much easier. I think that all sounds great but, but without wishing to appear naïve or out of step, what happens to the children once they have been collected from school? Do they look after themselves? Do they make themselves snacks and drinks and settle down to do homework? And what happens during the school holidays? Will children organise interesting and healthy activities for themselves to do all day at home? If that sounds like your domestic arrangement then well done, you have achieved a great thing.
But are we really achieving a better work-life balance, or are we just blurring the lines between work and home in a way that could lead to some unhealthy unintended outcomes?
What about the gender work split that is almost inevitable in a move to remote working? Research shows that women with young children are far more likely to opt for home working than men with young children. And as much as we tell ourselves that being present at work shouldn’t make any difference to career advancement opportunities, in many work environments, it really still does.
There’s also the matter of age to consider. Young people who are living in shared accommodation, and/or have limited space with no bespoke office space, will probably want to escape and go back into the office, whereas older, more financially established, employees will more likely have a home office (or maybe two), to choose to work from.
Please feel free to challenge me on this but from what I’ve seen, less experienced employees benefit immensely from just being around their more experienced colleagues and just watching and listening to them, and if they’re not mixing on a day to day basis, no amount of video meetings will plug that gap. The Chancellor of the Exchequer stated the same just recently when he called for young people to return to the ‘office’ when they were able to. His view is that if he had had to rely on video meetings earlier in his career and not had interaction with mentors and been able to make business connections in the office, he would not have advanced through the ranks. Well that’s all well and good but if the more experienced employees continue to work from home, there won’t be any such interactions.
Employers who are embarking on hybrid working models suggest that it’s the best of both worlds as employees have the opportunity of attending the workplace a couple of days a week and interacting with others. They suggest that video meetings will be held at regular intervals to keep the team spirt alive. But will that work? By their very nature video meetings inhibit full communication and I have my doubts that they produce that spontaneous creativity so prized by most organisations.
For decades we have acknowledged that diverse workforces are an integral part of organisational success and yet we appear to be prepared to throw that all away in an eye-blink, and set up the possibility of cliquey homogenous work groups forming.
In this move to a brave new way of working, some employers don’t appear to be addressing the issue that work output may not be quite so efficient, effective, easily measurable, or inspirational, or that employees might face alienation, loneliness, unfair treatment or discrimination. So what if standards slip a little? Is saving money on expensive work space and utility bills, while keeping employees ostensibly happy, a win/win situation? Perhaps, but only time will tell.
My misgivings go further than just work and I wonder that in pursuing remote or hybrid working on a grand scale that we are in danger of widening the socio-economic divide. After all, there can be no luxury of work-life balance for the likes of bus, or delivery drivers, or supermarket workers.
Remote or hybrid working may seem at first glance to improve work-life balance, and there’s no doubt that in some circumstances it certainly can, but unless we take measures to mitigate the downsides now, employers and employees may see that the short-term gains give way to far more division and discrimination than we ever bargained for and the strides we have made for workplace equality and fairness are pushed back a long, long way.