As we enter the 9th week in lockdown, we are all settling into routines that a few months ago would have seemed bizarre.
45,000 Lloyds staff are now working from home but how long will that continue and would many of those, if given the choice, want to continue to work from home in future? RBS has said that working from home will continue into September and some of its London based staff have been told they won’t return to work until the New Year. Barclays has said a “small percentage” of staff in the UK may be asked to begin returning to the office from 15 June “at the earliest,” if government guidance allows it. Tech giants Facebook and Google have said staff who want to can continue to work from home for rest of the year.
Many businesses have learned that they can operate remotely and at speed without any loss in productivity. As the economic consequences of the pandemic continue to bite the realisation that they can save money with more home working will be hard to resist especially for organisations like Lloyds. In a previous Newsletter we reported that Barclays was already looking at changes to its office footprint. Lloyds will be doing those calculations now.
Does It Work Over Time?
In a 2016 paper – ‘Does Working From Home Work?’ – a team of Stanford University economists looked at Ctrip, a 16,000-employee travel agency based in China that had randomly selected a small group of its call centre staff to work from home. Of the 1,000 employees offered the choice to work from home, only 500 volunteered for the experiment. The others wanted to remain in the office. At first it was a roaring success. Employees were more productive – a 13% performance increase – quit less and the majority said they were happier with their job. After nine months, Ctrip asked the original volunteers whether they wanted to continue to work from home or return to the office. 50% asked to return to work. Why? In a word, Loneliness. Nicholas Bloom, senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, said “The answer is social company. Those that returned to the office reported feeling isolated, lonely and depressed at home”. Those that stayed working from home enjoyed it and were still more productive over time. The experiment was such a success that the company offered all staff the opportunity to work from home.
Voluntarism Is Key
Going from one extreme to another is not going to work for organisations like Lloyds. However, offering more staff the opportunity to work from home more often is a good thing – for the environment if nothing else – and one which many staff will want to embrace: as long as it’s voluntary. In the past, one of the barriers to more home working were one-dimensional senior managers who only valued presenteeism. The pandemic will have forced those managers to change their views.
One of the potential drawbacks of working from home is that some organisations could introduce monitoring of employee interactions and productivity with the introduction of so called ‘snooping software’, like the one used by Barclays for its staff in Canary Wharf. Barclays was forced to abandon that system but only after facing an avalanche of public criticism. If there is going to be more home working on a permanent basis rather than in response to a pandemic, then line managers are going to have to heed Ernest Hemingway’s advice: “The best way to find out if you trust somebody is to trust them”.
Is Coronavirus making the working day longer?
One of the potential downsides to more home working is that employees, either intentionally or unintentionally, spend more hours working. We are already seeing some anecdotal evidence of that with members calling the union’s Advice Line about Zoom meetings being organised at 8am in the morning or 6pm at night. The Economist recently reported that the start and the end of working day is now blurred. The share of digital messages at peak hours between 10am to noon and 2pm to 4pm has fallen. Conversely, digital messages increased between 6am to 8am and from 6pm to 9pm. This is one of the issues we want to address in our working from home survey, which we discuss in more detail below. Are staff working from home, working longer hours or is it the case that it’s the same number of hours but spread throughout the day.
The Lockdown Survey
During this pandemic a large number of Lloyds staff are working from home, many of them for the first time. The purpose of our survey, which we will be sending to a representative sample of members across all divisions, will be to learn from this massive experiment because whatever happens next, working from home is firmly back on the agenda. So, what worked, what didn’t, how do staff feel about it and would they like to do more home working in future?
Members with any questions or would like advice on working from home should contact the Union’s Advice Team on 01234 262868 (choose Option 1).