The last 18 months have seen a significant change in the way we work as employees are confined to their homes. For many people this has been the right working environment.
But by ‘many people’ I certainly don’t mean everyone. It has been a struggle for cafes and restaurants near our offices across the UK, not to mention cab drivers and dry cleaners.
Dig deep among the office workers themselves and the picture is mixed. I had never worked from home before the pandemic, but we have all learned about resilience.
All the modern cons: Working from home can be very efficient and comfortable, if you have a spacious residence, garden and study
So while I’m pretty much back in my five-day office week, some days I stay home to save time to travel and fit in other commitments.
But this is the exception rather than the norm. In my demographic, this is probably unusual. The parks and cafes in my neighborhood are full of people squeezing in a break between calls. ‘I do a lot more at home,’ is repeatedly denied.
And herein lies the problem. Working from home can be very efficient and comfortable if you have a spacious residence, garden and study.
If you don’t then the reverse is true. And those who are not the most likely young people to start their careers, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
More than 3,000 of our employees are classified by the Social Mobility Commission as of low socio-economic background, with a high proportion of our young workforce.
This figure is based on our number of people who disclosed their highest-earning parent’s occupation at age 14. According to the commission, this is the best measure of background available.
Not only is it easy to understand but it also gets the highest response rate in testing. We have been collecting data for a few years through employee surveys. Now that the response rate has reached 80 percent, we have a good platform for data to support our work to improve social mobility.
Still, given that 20 percent of our people still chose not to disclose their background, and there will be new joiners as we gathered the latest data, the actual number from disadvantaged backgrounds is likely to be much higher.
This is why we felt it so important to open our offices as early as possible during the lockdown. The stories of people using the ironing board as a desk in the flat-share were very real.
That’s why we’re investing more in offices, ensuring that people have the flexibility to work from home, for a period of time, if they wish. But it’s not just about the set-up at home and whether or not people have the space and calm. The main reason why young people, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, disappear is because they have less opportunity to learn from others and build confidence and network. It is not just our perception, but it is what we ourselves hear from young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
You can’t read the mood and body language or expressions of someone on the screen and pick up on subtle cues that prompt you to check on someone’s well being. Making friends, finding the right times to ask questions, meet people outside your team, and build friendships that last a lifetime or support personal resilience are hard.
It’s the people whose beginnings have been the most underprivileged who stand to get the most out of the right network – and you need a face-to-face conversation to make it happen.
Of course, nothing is straightforward, and while I know our employees want to spend more time in the office (two to three days a week being the priority between 22,000 people, so that’s our policy), it’s the cost of commuting. and all other expenses that come with office life.
There will also be challenges in an office for other parts of our workforce, including those who feel more at risk of COVID or have disabilities. We need to make sure we don’t distort it further in an attempt to level the playing field.
The only way we’ll really know is by asking our people through surveys and conversations. From there we can build knowledge and hopefully trust by giving everyone a voice and showing we’re listening. We need to ensure that office life is a part of working life and is for everyone.