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IFS Director Paul Johnson on the dangers of enforced home working

Newspaper article

Last week’s decision to delay full reopening was curious in many ways. Why is the prime minister so determined on an irreversibility he can’t guarantee? Why the delay now? And if you are going to delay for four weeks, why not make it five to at least coincide with the end of the school term? But the most curious aspect of all has been the almost total lack of attention paid to the continued restriction which is likely to affect the most people: the injunction to work from home if we can.

Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, but I had to struggle for several minutes online on Monday evening, after listening to the announcements and reporting, to confirm that that advice will indeed remain in place. Since then we’ve heard suggestions that working from home may even become a right.

Perhaps too many MPs and journalists are already in the office. Perhaps those working at home are enjoying themselves. Perhaps policymakers and commentators have little idea of the impact on the lives of millions. Perhaps it’s because they have not been trying to run a business remotely for the past 15 months.

Unusually for someone with a column in a national newspaper, my day job involves running an organisation employing more than 70 staff. The challenges of running the IFS will be similar to the challenges faced by businesses up and down the country. This column is in part a reflection of my own experience in that role.

Let’s start though with some facts. Always a good idea when writing from the anecdote of one’s own experience. As of a month ago just over a quarter of all working adults were, according to the Office for National Statistics, working exclusively from home. A further 11 per cent were working partly from home. That’s down from the February peak, but that’s still an awful lot of people not going in to the office.

Us home workers should remember, though, that more than half the working population are back at their normal place of work — schools and hospitals, shops and warehouses, restaurants and pubs, factories and construction sites.

Businesses in that survey, rightly as it turns out, reported considerable uncertainty over when their staff would be returning. Once they do return most expect to offer more flexibility over at least some home working.

Most organisations have learnt from recent experience. There are likely to be long-term positive effects on the way we work and the flexibility we enjoy. The ONS concludes, though, that “while many workers clearly prefer working from home, today’s research suggests their bosses remain unconvinced”.

I am in the unconvinced category, at least as regards the predominantly home-working model we have been running since last March. While a hybrid system may work well, the wider economic evidence we have suggests that entirely home working is, in most circumstances, less productive than office working.

Like most, we at the IFS have fared much better than we feared when all this began. Most of our work has transferred relatively easily online. That is partly because we have been living off accumulated social capital. The senior team has been stable and we know each other well. Staff turnover has been relatively modest. Most still know each other and the culture of the organisation. Bit by bit, month by month, though, that accumulated capital is depreciating.

There are more and more new starters who haven’t met most of their colleagues, or experienced much of the culture. Learning and training remotely is possible, but it’s harder and slower than in person. The big downside that employees report in the ONS survey is that home working makes it harder to work with others. There are few jobs where that does not matter. Where you are trying to build a collaborative, inclusive and learning culture it matters enormously. Employers report concerns over the impact of home working on communication, working culture and productivity. As David Solomon, the boss of Goldman Sachs, has said, full-time working from home is not ideal for an “innovative, collaborative, apprenticeship culture”.

These are slow-burn issues. We and most other office-based organisations can continue to work from home. Following the guidance means that we will largely continue to do so. But month by month, almost imperceptibly, the costs mount. The costs increase with uncertainty. There is also a planning blight affecting the events, trips and meetings which have hitherto been the lifeblood of working life. And that’s before taking account of the harm done to the mental health of those who struggle with the isolation of working from home.

It is no doubt the almost hidden and gradual nature of these effects which explain the lack of attention paid to the continuation of this guidance. The impact on the entertainment and hospitality venues which can’t operate at full capacity is more immediately damaging. But bit by bit it is grinding us down.

That’s not to say we will or should return to where things were. We have learnt that there are new and sometimes better ways of doing things. Many of us at the IFS will spend more of our time working from home in the future than before the pandemic struck. That will be our choice though, just as it will be for thousands of other businesses up and down the country making the choices that work for them.

Putting off the moment at which we can make that choice, in the interests of the wellbeing of our own staff and the health of our own organisations, creates costs which are growing over time. I’d feel just a little bit better if I were confident that all this was at least being recognised and weighed in the balance by those making the decisions which have so fundamentally affected our lives.

This article was originally published in The Times and is reproduced here with kind permission