Our love affair with working from home, triggered during Covid lockdowns by the often cheerless embrace of Zoom, is cooling sharply. The daily commute is becoming fashionable, especially if you are young. The alternative is experienced by too many as lonely, isolating, distracting, threatening to one’s mental health, polluting of one’s home space. It’s expensive to keep warm – and you’re often the last to find out what’s going on among your colleagues.
Workplaces, after all, are where you make friends and sometimes meet life partners, as well as learn all that tacit knowledge so crucial to doing your job well and so build your career. We humans are social animals and creating working lives permanently apart from others was always going against the grain.
Figures from Transport for London (TfL) confirm what we already know from TikTok, where sharing workplace highlights among Gen Zers is among the new viral memes. It’s fun and refreshing to be at work with other people. Last Thursday saw the highest London Underground usage since the start of the pandemic, with 3.64m journeys. Tube usage is climbing to between 75% and 80% of pre-pandemic levels, up from 45% in January – while buses are even more popular. TfL says passenger levels on some bus routes in outer London are back to pre-pandemic levels.
The signs are that it is the young who are readier to re-enter the world of nine to five. Weekday cycling in London is up 25% on pre-pandemic levels – commuter cycling is mostly undertaken by the young and early middle aged. Another straw in the wind is that a third of all journeys are now paid for by contactless mobile phone devices, says TfL, again most likely to be used by the young – higher than pre-pandemic levels. On current trends, by next summer or early autumn London’s overall commuter traffic will be very close to or above pre-pandemic levels. It’s a similar trend around the country .
Stories abound of young people moving jobs not because they want to work from home, but because they want to work in workplaces populated by other staff. Better that than the mounting bleakness of commuting alone from your bedroom to the kitchen table day after day and living a sterile online life, a major source of depression during Covid lockdowns. A number of people I know have switched jobs largely for this reason. Others who are forced to work from home choose to do so in collective workspaces, just to get out of their house or flat regularly and share a coffee. The message is beginning to be taken on board by employers. Consultants Timewise reported in its annual Flexible Jobs Index for 2022 last week that only 12% of the 6m job adverts they analysed in the first half of the year allow for some form of hybrid working.
This should not be a surprise. It is less an obsession with presenteeism that drives employers to want to see their employees physically at work and more that they understand the importance of tacit knowledge and that most work is delivered by teams rather than by individuals. Teams work best with lots of face time and shared purpose – all best framed by being in the same physical workplace at the same time. Try building a great team whose continuity is permanently challenged by members working remotely. It can be done, but it’s not easy.
But employers such as Twitter’s new boss, Elon Musk, who insisted his workforce come to work Monday through Friday, are only partly right. For alongside this desire to work beyond the home, there is a strong demand, learned from lockdowns, for more ability to vary where and when we work. Beware – the workplace is in flux. As Timewise also reports, nine out of 10 workers want to vary their hours, but only half are able to do so. As ever in contemporary Britain, there is the long shadow of inequality. It is those with greater skills who are best able to exploit the new shared understanding that some work in any week can be done from home effectively at the same time as very few want to work at home full time.
What is emerging is a new class of privileged workers in privileged sectors – finance, business services, consultancy, academia, parts of the media – who can insist on working from home part of the week, with Friday and Monday especially favoured to create a long weekend.
Others who work in the foundation economy – shops, hospitals, cafes, petrol stations – where presence comes with the territory, have less hybridity, as do the unskilled with low-paid, flexible part-time work imposed on them – fewer hours than they want but with little flexibility over when to work them.
Where will it end? The workplace and office are not about to die, nor last rites to be delivered to commuting – some of the wilder claims made during the lockdowns. My own guess is the evolving norm will be a three- to four-day, workplace-based working week, with some flexible hours added on, unless the government decides to impose common standards for us all, the privileged sectors taking the lead. As that becomes the standard-setting culture, even the disadvantaged parts of the labour market will do what they can to follow suit, but slowly and unevenly. It is a moment for a rejuvenated trade unionism to make its appeal.
There is every chance of work starting to become happier and more built around the arc of our lives, with more hybridity for those with young families and less for those starting out or rejoining work who don’t really want or need to stay at home. The future will be neither the Gradgrind of Musk, nor the confines of the front room. Rather, it will be an opportunity to reclaim work not as an act of alienation or exploitation but as something integral to our lives.
As economists wring their hands over stagnating productivity, society is stumbling towards finding part of the answer: organising work so we can freely give of our best. It’s a trend the government should buttress so it extends beyond the advantaged and privileged as far as possible to all, but it’s a ray of optimism in dark times.
• Will Hutton is an Observer columnist