Monday 14 December 2020 2:14 am

Why it’s too soon to scrap the office

Professor Jan-Emmanuel De Neve is associate professor of economics and strategy at Oxford Saïd Business School and director of Oxford University’s Wellbeing Research Centre

The fraction of the UK workforce currently working from home stands at around a third — far above pre-pandemic level of just five per cent. 

Productivity seems to have remained largely stable since the great shift to remote work. And it has proved popular with many workers, who have seen immediate benefits such as greater autonomy and avoiding the dreaded commute — and the expenses associated with it.

Sensing a workplace revolution, companies are increasingly signalling that remote working could be the norm even after the pandemic. Some have already decided to get rid of their offices entirely. 

Read more: Refusal to return to the office post-coronavirus ‘could be grounds for dismissal’

But in our rush to embrace this newfound freedom, are we overlooking important negative impacts of homeworking full-time? 

I believe that we are. In fact, there is a real risk that this trend will undermine social and intellectual capital, which will harm both companies and their employees in the long term. 

In this context, social and intellectual capital can be visualised as stocks that are slowly being depleted. For companies, these stocks are normally replenished by new in-flows of people, places, and ideas. For workers, social and intellectual capital is built by shared experiences between colleagues and unplanned social interactions that broaden an individual’s thinking.

As we found in our earlier work, building meaningful relationships with co-workers, especially management, is critical to job and life satisfaction. Working from home all the time simply does not allow for that to the same extent as the office. 

And work itself represents much more than a paycheque — it is essential to one’s social identity. We know from prior research that when somebody loses their job, half of the negative impact on wellbeing stems not from the loss of income, but from the loss of social ties, identity, and a routine that comes with a job.

The impact of mass homeworking is likely to be felt most keenly by the young. Imagine finishing university, applying to a new job and preparing to leave home for good, only to find that your company has decided to reduce its office capacity to almost nil. The experiences older generations have taken for granted at work — meeting friends, partners and living in new places — could become the exception rather than the norm. 

Even if you are currently enjoying working from home full-time, you might want to think twice before committing to this setup for the long term. While research by those such as Nicholas Bloom and his colleagues found clear benefits in productivity for home workers, they also found that they are more likely to be overlooked for promotion — a clear indication of the need to build social capital with colleagues. 

Fortunately, wellbeing science can help us forge a solution that maintains the best elements of working from home — the autonomy and flexibility — while allowing companies and their employees to maintain or increase their social and intellectual capital. 

We know that even a part-time office-based job of one or two days a week can provide people with the network, routine and identity needed to improve wellbeing. A hybrid model that affords employees some time each week to network, collaborate and socialise would provide the necessary in-flows of social and intellectual capital for workers and companies alike. 

Business leaders must embrace this idea if we are to build back better in the post-pandemic world.

Read more: A healthy dose of FOMO can get London’s workers back to the office

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.