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Are the powers-that-be really pushing for remote workforces?

Diane Hall


Back view of black businessman talking to his colleagues about plan in video conference from home.

Once Covid restrictions were lifted on a more permanent basis halfway through 2021, a range of working models have been adopted by UK companies.

Some businesses turned fully remote, after seeing the cost savings that came from no longer needing a permanent shared office space in a prime location. Some companies, understandably those whose business operations are in the retail, hospitality or other customer-facing sectors, asked their workers to come back to base.

The rest fell somewhere in-between—offering flexibility for their employees to work from home whilst also expecting regular meetings/contact with staff and managers in the office; the best of both worlds.

Remote working is a worry on some level for the government, as it negatively impacts the economy. If workers aren’t using public transport, if they’re not buying their cappuccinos as they come to work, and if they’re not popping out in their lunch break for a sandwich and a little retail therapy, businesses suffer. One study has estimated this to reflect a £15.3bn annual loss to the GDP.

Other experts believe this is just a bedding in period, and that local villages and towns will benefit economically from more people working from home; rather than popping to a high street chain for their takeaway coffee and sandwich, remote employees will simply buy these from local producers. This ‘levelling up’ as they call it, will make a big difference over time. That’s all well and good but given the cost of living crisis and how much people’s wages are being squeezed, spending on local goods and services will likely reduce, not increase.

When we were first told by Boris Johnson to work from home, back in March 2020, around 60% of the UK’s workforce did so (keyworkers were still allowed to attend their workplaces). Two years on, around 26% of us have made the shift to remote working a permanent arrangement.

Mother working from home eating food with her baby

Mother working from home eating food with her baby

For many people, remote working increases their productivity, and the prospect of no commuting is another plus. However, working in this way can be insular and some remote employees can feel disconnected and unmotivated at home. It’s also more difficult to separate home and work life.

According to research, the average employee saved £45 a week from working at home during lockdowns—no fuel to buy, no public transport tickets to lay out for, no impulse purchases. This would soon add up and have an impact on the economy. No wonder the powers-that-be want us all to come back to the office.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer went as far to say that a career spent working from home would be a stilted one, citing remote working as a barrier to promotion and personal development. On the flipside, homeworking is an advantage to minority groups, such as the disabled and people with mental health issues.

Statistics gathered from the general public show a divide; one poll found that 19% of respondents wanted to work from home 5 days a week. 21% didn’t want to work from home at all. Age made a difference…older workers were more likely to favour remote working compared to those at the outset of their career, who championed the shared workplace.

It’s a nice idea, to think that remote working will invigorate towns and villages that have been on a slow decline for decades, after mining and other production stopped in their areas, particularly in the North. That people will mix more in their neighbourhoods. That there’d be a butcher, baker and candlestick maker on every main street. That we’d have much less reliance on motor vehicles. A return to the 1950s, but with modern technology.

As you can see from the above, however, whilst some aspects may improve if we all shifted to remote working, there would be negative effects elsewhere.

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