The work from home brigade should be careful what they wish for

28 August 2020

3:38 PM

28 August 2020

3:38 PM

No more commuting. An end to irritating conversations with slightly dull colleagues. The boss can’t monitor how much time you spend on Facebook anymore, and you have plenty of time to bake sourdough bread/try out online pilates/read the whole of Proust (delete as applicable). A few of us might even be able to carry on earning a salary while spending much of the year in Provence or Tuscany. It is perhaps no great surprise that the British have taken to working from home so enthusiastically. After all, what’s not to like? Well, perhaps this: while it may be great for now, many staffers may soon find that they aren’t employees anymore, simply expendable gig workers – and that isn’t quite so much fun.

As the Covid-19 crisis gradually eases, it is proving hard to get the British back to work. A survey this week showed a third of young people expected to work from home more or less forever, while another earlier this week showed we were more reluctant to go back to our desks than any country in Europe. The CBI has taken to issuing warnings about the impact on the economy, and the government is already doing its best to get the commuter trains full again. Very soon Rishi Sunak may be offering half-price sandwiches at Pret for anyone willing to clock in on a Monday morning. Even so, it may prove surprisingly hard. Many people seem to enjoy the freedom of laptops and Zoom, and, so long as they can claim it isn’t yet safe, it is hard to force anyone to go back.

But hold on. Employees may think it is great now. But they are making a big mistake. Why?

Because once you are no longer in the office you aren’t really an employee any more. You are effectively a freelancer, and that is a very different relationship with your company. Once you are working from home, output can be measured far more precisely. You don’t get paid for your time anymore, you get paid for a specific set of tasks, and your company can compare the cost of that to hundreds if not thousands of other suppliers.

Likewise, in the gig economy, you are competing not just with people from the same town, but with freelancers from around the world. Dozens of websites allow anyone from anywhere to bid for the work: many of them will be far better value than you are. Benefits such as free lunches, sick pay, training courses, and indeed holidays that were standard in the office will gradually start to look very expensive for a revolving roster of freelancers. And, even if it take a few years, as tasks are standardised, and performed remotely, it will be a lot easier to create artificial intelligence programmes to do that work instead. It was hard for software to recreate the mysterious chemistry of an office, but it is a lot easier to code gig work.

In truth, working from home is going to be great for companies. The office was a huge cost that the creation of the personal computer and broadband internet had made increasingly obsolete. Covid-19 may well simply have accelerated its decline, and most businesses will be a lot more profitable without it. But it will be terrible for workers. The reality is that they should be clamouring to get back to the office as quickly as they can. They will miss it when it is gone.

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