Catriona Stewart: Has working from home become the new normal?

I WAS live on the radio the other day and the presenter said: “I’m your boss, I’m looking at you and I say, ‘Come back to the office full time right now.’ What do you say back?”

“Well, I’d cry”, I said, hoping my editor wasn’t listening.

As I’m sure most of us who are in the privileged position of being able to work from home have, I’ve experienced my ups and downs with it.

Initially I was extremely anxious to be leaving our office, and my colleagues and all the free doughnuts, behind. At first, though, the novelty was enough. Being able to spend the morning in pyjamas and always being at home for deliveries was a decent enough swap.

Then the relentlessness of having the only living space in my flat set up as an office became a horrible, inescapable grind. Eventually the sweet compromise of blended working – a few days at home and a few days in the office – seemed ideal until I actually went back and found my productivity utterly plummeted when there were people to speak to.

Also, we’re on the fourth floor of our new office and the kettle’s in the basement so there’s a heck of a lot of time lost to trotting up and down for pots of tea. What do you mean, work without tea?

When I logged in to my computer earlier the home page said “we’ve collected some tips and tricks to make you more productive while working from home,” so perhaps, if even the computer’s decided to nag me, I’m not as successful at this WFH lark as I might think.

From Monday, the Scottish Government’s recommendation is a phased return to office working. What will this mean in reality?

For many of us who are office based, the past two years have been a chance to experience difference ways of working. For some, it’s been a far more difficult experience as home working also meant home schooling or no escape from caring responsibilities.

Others found it hard to be isolated or were in living spaces that didn’t lend themselves to adapting to be healthy or suitable work spaces.

For others, home working has been the chance to pick up new hobbies, develop existing talents or use the saved commute time to take up morning yoga or a walk in the park. I don’t know who these people are or how they manage it – I’ve lost my commute and saved no time – but apparently they exist.

So too do the people who spend more time with family and enjoy it, have spotless homes, and spend ample time with their lockdown pets. It must be hard to go back to working in an office once you’ve become used to having a puppy for company. Office dogs should definitely be an accepted part of the “new normal”.

But what will the new normal be?

HeraldScotland: File photo dated 03/03/20 of a woman using a laptop on a dining room table set up as a remote office to work from home. Around three in five businesses have increased spending on supporting the health and wellbeing of their staff, new research suggests.

As part of this new experience of and quest for work/life balance, we’ve been led to believe tell of The Great Resignation, the phenomenon of staff leaving their posts in record numbers in order to travel the world, tick off their bucket lists or search for their dream jobs.

It seems largely to be an American reality transported across the pond with retrofitted surveys of British workers designed to back up the theory of it being relevant in the UK.

Headlines in the US run along the lines of “We’ve Become a Nation of Quitters” and, somehow, the media here has found that aspirational and sought to replicate it.

In America, employment figures showed that more people had left employment at a certain point in the pandemic than in the previous decade. This can’t only be attributable to a pandemic-induced desire to seek sunnier shores; it must also be down to reasons such as people simply being unable to return to work because they had no childcare, say.

One of the main supporting facts presented as holding up the truth of the British Great Resignation is a survey of 6000 workers carried out late last year by Randstad UK, which found 69% of those felt confident about moving to a new role in the near future.

Apparently a figure of 11% is more normal. The company was advising businesses to look at pay and conditions in order to retain staff.

Will all of this lead to a complete overhaul of the way we work or will it merely be a temporary blip before we slide back to old habits.

One shift in the power dynamic between employer and employee has come from the very public conversation about flexible working, caring responsibilities and the need for balance. It’s not impossible, but it is much more difficult for companies to back peddle now that successful blended working patterns have been established.

If anything shows that life is short and unpredictable, it’s living through a pandemic and, while it might be argued that humans are creatures of habit who suffer from strong status quo bias, that is going to loom long in our memories.

I look at my younger colleagues now, too, and Generation Zers I know and I see a group less likely to make themselves a slave to the workplace.

We were having a chat in the office on September 11 last year. One of my colleagues had no memory of where she was on that date in 2001 because she was a not yet sentient twinkle in her mother’s womb. That stops you in your tracks, doesn’t it, the first time you meet a co-worker who wasn’t around for a seminal moment in recent history.

It was the moment I realised we are not, in fact, peers. This new cohort seems far less beholden to employment, perhaps because, unlike Millennials, they don’t remember the post-2008 uncertainty when we entered the workforce. Generational trends are always broad swept but it is a striking attitudinal change.

I wonder how employers will respond and what effect it will have on the power of the employee.

I’m not suggesting that any old demands should be met in the manner of backstage riders in the vein of bowls of M&Ms with all the brown lollies taken out or life-size cutouts of David Hasselhoff, which David Hassehoff requires backstage.

No, far more fundamental and difficult change: better pay, conditions and flexibility. And office dogs. A shift has happened and continues to happen as the workforce re-examines the boundaries between home and office, employer and employee.

There’s been plenty of talking done. Now it’s over to employers to facilitate that shift.

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