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Will lockdown herald a collapse in creativity or something worse?

03 November 2020

By Adam Lloyd

“I do not miss the commute but I feel acutely the loss of working relationships and external stimuli - the chance conversations, listening to very different people with very different lived experiences, the exposure to new ideas and experiences.” In his recent speech, Andy Haldane the BOE’s Chief Economist pointed out that despite the benefits home working also has costs and he added: "These losses will grow with time. At some point, they will offset the benefits of avoiding South West Trains."

The advocates of home working, such as freelancers, have been making the case for years and as high speed internet connections become more ubiquitous there are so many more things we can do from the comfort of our own homes. The arguments for a more flexible work life balance have been reinforced as companies realise the potential benefits to their business such as: reduced office space, relocating from expensive city offices and location no longer being a significant recruitment issue. 

Since the start of the pandemic the debate has moved from the hypothetical to the real. For those of us whose only essential tools are a phone and a computer, working from home has worked pretty well and we have learned to embrace the plethora of remote working technologies for the “face-to-face” interactions that form a large part of our working lives. The old stigma that working from home was a career limiting concession for working mums and single parents can thankfully be consigned to the waste bin.

As Andy Haldane so eloquently puts it, there are some big issues. While few of us miss the stress of the commute we are essentially social animals who thrive in the company of our fellows. To paraphrase John Donne, “No one is an island….”

Non-verbal communication plays a major part in our lives and forms a vital part of our ability to build trust and establish meaningful relationships. A five minute conversation can contain more information and complexity than an hour’s worth of email exchanges.  Business meetings are undoubtedly more business-like in the remote format, agendas are more assiduously adhered to and they finish quicker but looking at ten faces on your computer is just not the same as being in the room with them. How much is lost without the pre and post meeting chat with colleagues as you walk from and back to your desk?  

That great innovator, Apple, doesn’t provide kitchens and breakfast for its staff because they are hungry, it’s because they know that’s where they meet and talk. They know that those relaxed conversations away from the workstation are often where the best ideas are born.

It’s not just the spontaneity of chance conversations with colleagues we lose, it’s the entire support network of the people we work with, many of whom we see as friends. Mental health problems associated with the pandemic include isolation and the groups that have been disproportionately affected by loneliness include working age adults living alone. 

The UK is not blessed with ubiquitous internet coverage and many don’t have a home environment conducive to efficient working. For people unable to work effectively from home the future in an extended period of lockdown is not good. The disparity in connectivity will eventually lead to a widening inequality of work experience, professional development and career opportunity.

When the pandemic is finally behind us and we can make the choice between home and the office it should not be a binary choice. Working from home is a valuable tool in achieving a healthy work-life balance but for most of us it is not an alternative.