People Want Flexible Jobs But The Media Keeps Telling Us ‘Get Back To Normal’ – Who Is Right?

Individual employees have different opinions about working from home (WFH). Some believe it is more productive and saves them time wasted during a commute. Others believe that it isn’t possible to concentrate on work at home. The presenter of ‘Wake Up To Money’ on BBC Radio 5 could recently be heard saying that when he tries working from home he spends all day on Netflix.

This variation in personal opinion usually depends on personal experience. If you ask a group of friends this question then it’s likely you will get a variety of responses – unless all your friends are drawn from people with the same type of job.

So what has the media been saying? 

Through the pandemic there was plenty of discussion and argument about the government response, but there was generally broad agreement on working from home. It reduced exposure to the virus so it was a good idea at that time. Now there is a more mixed response.

Although the Washington Post is based in the US, there was a very interesting recent opinion piece by Michael Bloomberg – founder of the Bloomberg media company and former mayor of New York City. Mr Bloomberg almost yells at the reader to get back to normal. He says: “The pandemic is over. Excuses for allowing offices to sit empty should end, too.” His own company is reducing all flexibility and expecting people to be back in the office once again.

This negativity about working from home has also been reflected in The Economist. A June 2023 article titled ‘The working-from-home illusion fades’ reports that new research shows a 4% decline in efficiency for companies that allow employees to work from home.

The Daily Mail reported in May 2023 that almost half of the UK Civil Service calls their residence their main workplace. The first line of the story called the numbers ‘shocking figures.’ It’s easy to determine what the Daily Mail thinks of home-based government employees because the story states ‘also known as the blob’ when referring to the Civil Service.

If you scan the headlines there is a lot of anger at the continued availability of flexible working options – including the right to work from home. These leading media outlets continually attack organisations that are allowing employees to work from home and Michael Bloomberg’s views have been echoed in the UK by cabinet ministers and British business leaders.

But why all this anger?

Most people that are not worried about filling an expensive office seem to think that flexibility is good. Even the headline writers surely value some flexibility in their own work environment? Data from LinkedIn indicates that a third of British employees would quit if their employer insisted on a complete return to the office.

It is now two years since the last Covid lockdown in the UK. Very few employers insisted on a return to the practices of 2019. Flexibility and the ability to work from home when in-person work is not essential is now seen as a right by most  – despite all those negative headlines.

The UK is something of a paradox though. We have retained more work from home flexibility than any other country in Europe and yet we also work more hours than almost all of our neighbours. The WFH debate is actually far more complex than those media headlines might lead readers to believe. Many younger workers prefer to visit an office because it creates social opportunities – a pint after work – and parents with young children value the freedom to not commute. There are as many reasons to support working from home or working from an office as there are employees. 

However, the consensus is that allowing employees the flexibility to choose should be retained as the future for everyone. A July 2023 government press release was headlined: “Millions to benefit from new flexible working measures.”

This was the announcement that the Flexible Working Bill has now been passed into law. It grants employees the flexibility over where and when they work and the right to make requests for flexible work options is available from day one in a new job. Different jobs and different preferences and responsibilities mean that the reality is different for everyone – being flexible is the option that offers the best outcomes for most employees.

The UK government has officially backed flexibility and made it law. Most employees welcome flexibility – it’s optional so those who prefer working from an office also have that choice. The data from most studies of working from home demonstrate that it is easier to hire people when you offer flexible work options, it’s more productive, and people suffer less stress. In general, all the research indicators show that the more flexibility offered, the better the outcomes.

How does the overwhelmingly positive academic research into work flexibility and the new Flexible Working Bill square with the endless calls from headline writers in the media urging us all to just ‘get back to normal!’? 

Perhaps there is an editorial agenda that is not obvious – advertiser preference or just the editorial opinion that ‘normal’ work is performed at a physical place of work? Or perhaps it is just the media reflecting a traditional view of ‘work’ and ‘home’ and failing to appreciate the modern reality – most people are embracing flexibility and don’t look back at the old days with rose-tinted glasses. Work is now the tasks we undertake, regardless of whether it is done inside an office or factory.

Whatever the reason, the media looks out of touch. British employees are not rushing back to commuter trains and a rushed sandwich at a desk. Flexible working is here to stay – even the government has made sure of that.

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