Commentary: WFH debates must include what 'home' actually is
Working in a stifling flat is a very different proposition to an airy home with shutters. Employers must recognise the future of work is also about where and how employees live, says the Financial Times' Emma Jacobs.
LONDON: Coming down with COVID-19 was an unlikely source of relief last week. I did not have to weigh up whether to venture out to the 40 degrees Celsius streets of London with my laptop on my back to get to the prize: An air-conditioned office.
Instead, the decision was made for me: I isolated at home in front of a fan. Some employers advised white-collar workers to stay at home. Others, such as shop workers and nurses, didn’t have the luxury of choice.
The heatwave once again brought home the differences between workers’ accommodation as well as their commutes. Working in a stifling flat is a very different proposition to an airy home with shutters.
As with the pandemic, the high temperatures underlined the problematic connections between work and housing. When we talk about the pressures of home on work, it’s often a euphemism for family or caring responsibilities. But there is a more literal interpretation too.
In lockdowns, those who were able to work from a dedicated office in their large home or a converted shed in the garden had a very different experience from those in crowded flats.
One young professional told me he had to Zoom from the bathroom of his crowded flatshare, while a student living with his parents and siblings in a cramped apartment spoke of studying for his finals in the booth where he worked as a car park attendant.
Zoom gave us an inside view of our colleagues’ living arrangements. Younger people saw senior peers living in spacious homes rather than having to jostle for space on the kitchen table with flatmates.
It also revealed which of their colleagues had homes financed by the Bank of Mum and Dad, an inheritance, or a wealthier partner. These insights brought new dynamics to the workplace.
TENSIONS FROM ASKING WORKERS TO RETURN TO THE OFFICE
The pandemic made some people re-evaluate their lives. When Channel 4 moved 300 jobs out of London, 90 per cent of employees reportedly applied for redundancy instead – though a few reconsidered after lockdown.
The experience showed white-collar workers didn’t need to be tethered to a location within easy reach of their workplace. Moving out of large cities in return for greater space had a knock-on effect of driving up prices in those areas.
Now that the world is opening up again, employees’ decisions to move further away from work are causing tensions. One television producer complained of an employee who had moved from London to the Kent seaside in lockdown and was resisting coming into the office four times a week because his commute was more than two hours each way.
It is easy for an employer to frame such a decision as an individual’s choice – and one might have some sympathy for the TV company director who pays staff wages well above the national average.
But housing costs are a strain on workers, particularly during a cost of living crisis. Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics showed the increasing unaffordability of properties as prices grew faster than wages last year in 91 per cent of England’s local authorities.
The average property was about 9.1 times the average full-time salary, up from 7.9 the previous year. Kensington and Chelsea was the worst area: Average house prices were 36.5 times average earnings.
THE NANNY EMPLOYER?
Some employers have stepped in to help with housing costs. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a professional organisation, says most assistance is geared towards subsidised rental deposits or moving-in allowances.
But others are taking it a step further. Meta is building 1,700 flats next to its headquarters, and Google’s San Jose development will also have some affordable housing, including for employees. Though in truth, the tech groups are helping solve a problem of their own making in Silicon Valley.
In the care sector, Brexit and the pandemic have increased staff shortages.
In response, Parklands Care Homes in Inverness has submitted plans to build homes to encourage workers to live nearby. Ron Taylor, managing director, said the cost of living crisis and the lack of affordable homes for rent were proving “barriers to recruitment”.
Such moves could be seen as the latest iteration of an overreaching nanny employer. The risk for employees is that they are dependent on their bosses not just for wages but for housing.
But the property market is in flux. As work and consumer patterns shift, some offices are empty for part of the week. UK retailer John Lewis has announced plans to create rental properties over Waitrose shops and in one of its vacant warehouses.
Employers must recognise that the future of work is also about where – and how – their employees live.