11 June 2021

Reports of the death of the five-day week are greatly exaggerated

By Paul Swinney

I caused a bit of a Twitter storm earlier this week. It wasn’t because I’d commented on politics in the Middle East, or whether the Government was at fault for the number of Covid deaths. I’d suggested in a radio interview that, despite the pandemic, working life may not change quite as radically in the long term as some have predicted. 

The reaction shows that some people have enjoyed working from home. I don’t dispute that. But we shouldn’t write off the five day week in the office. Many readers will no doubt balk at this. But hear me out.

It’s important to note first that the majority of people can’t work from home.

According to the ONS just under 36% of the UK’s employed population did ‘at least some of their work from home’ last year. So for 64% of people, we shouldn’t expect any change to working patterns in the coming years. And this number is skewed by London – Centre for Cities’ estimates suggest that in places like Doncaster, it rises to 80%.

Let’s focus though on those that have been able to work at home at least in part. The debate about this group has shifted during the pandemic. At the start, the consensus seemed to be that Covid would be the tipping point that let many of those workers go fully remote.

This has now shifted to the idea that people will go to the office for some of the week, with an acceptance that at least some office time is important (particularly for higher-skilled, non-routine tasks). 

This shift recognises there are some benefits to being in an office at least part of the time. But what are they?

One is the creativity that results from putting people together in the same room, something Apple CEO Tim Cook pointed to as his reason for bringing employees back. It is the serendipity of these interactions that is important and, while not impossible, they are much harder to facilitate over Zoom. It’s the chat with a colleague around a desk, or on a walk to Pret together at lunchtime, or while queuing for a drink in the pub by the office.

Another benefit is that the office environment is an important place for people starting out on their careers to learn. A great deal of information flies around an office, be it reading a colleague’s body language or watching a boss with 15 years’ experience respond to a particular situation with a client. Almost all of this information is lost when we work remotely, and is one of the reasons why Goldman Sachs boss David Soloman called working from home an ‘aberration’.

A final reason is having face time with the boss. Working remotely is fine when we’re all forced to do it. But if a colleague is in the office influencing decisions while you’re at home, this dynamic may well change. We shouldn’t underprice the fear of missing out.

If you accept all this (and those promoting hybrid working must do, otherwise they’d be proposing fully remote working) then here is the problem for hybrid working: it’s hard to see how this will settle into what economists would call a stable equilibrium.

This is because the thing about spontaneity is that you can’t plan for it. It could happen at 10:07am on a Monday, or 4:25pm on a Thursday. And in the extreme, if one colleague spends Monday to Wednesday in the office, and another spends Wednesday to Friday, there’s only one day of overlap between them where this spontaneity may happen face to face. This almost completely erodes the reason for going into the office in the first place.

Given the announcements of numerous companies in recent months, hybrid working looks like it will be popular when offices open again. But the time to check its popularity is not June 2021. It’ll be June 2023.

Will there be more hybrid working post Covid-19 than before it? It would be very surprising if this wasn’t the case.

Will it be particularly popular amongst some groups and industries? Undoubtedly.

But will it be the dominant form of office work? Hybrid working will have to find a way to make up for that missed spontaneity if it is to become the main model of working in the future, and many of us don’t drift back to the usual Monday to Friday pattern.

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Paul Swinney is Director of Policy and Research at Centre for Cities

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.