As with other innovations, it carries risks as well as benefits.
There is this great cartoon where a man sits behind a laptop having a Zoom call at his kitchen table perfectly shaven and dressed in a shiny shirt with tie, but under the table he is in his boxer shorts and socks, and the floor is littered with empty beer bottles. A hilarious depiction of a real-life situation, but it also illustrates the wider social impact of our stay-at-home experiment. For some workers WFH is a shiny perk and something to savour, while for others it represents a barrier to progress their careers and a perception of inequality.
A traditional employment contract will state the place of work and the time you are working for the employer. Typically, the place is an office location, and wherever the employer wants you to be and the time, normally 40 hours per week, plus any additional time required by the employer. These are all covered by employment legislation protecting both worker and employer rights.
Changes to this model were already made before the pandemic, most obviously with the introduction of part-time jobs, which allowed many women to enter the workforce, and outsourcing trends that created the contractor model. Supported by new technology and further enhanced by the gig economy, these innovations changed the perception of the fixed full-time office workplace.
Led by the technology sector, businesses experimented using a mix of contracting, part-time jobs, as well as this new technology-enabled phenomenon: WFH. Its goal was to increase productivity and staff-to-workstation ratios, so that they could viably operate expensive, cool, inner-city offices operating as a smoothly connected international network. It was against this backdrop that our stay-at-home experiment began, which forced most of the workforce to WFH for the first time.
From an employer’s perspective there are positive effects: lower space-per-worker cost and better retention rates because of happier staff, but there are also negative effects: reduced creative outputs due to lower interaction levels and costlier more complex management tools.