Imagine it: never having to go to the office again because the physical space has been let go.
Post-lockdown, this is a reality for many UK workers, as multiple large companies have announced the end of their office spaces, requiring all staff to work from home with no (or little) say in the matter.
Separately to those seeing their staff work from home completely, it’s been reported that a large portion of the UK’s biggest employers won’t be bringing back staff full-time, with one recruitment agency revealing that four-fifths of its 34,000-strong workforce are now remote.
It’s not limited to large corporations – many smaller brands have also changed the way they’ll work going forward, whether they are unable to afford the rent or are simply looking to minimise costs.
For many this has been a joyous move. The benefits are obvious. No commute, more time for hobbies, less money spent on child care, space from irritating bosses and colleagues – these are but a few of the reasons one in three of us want to keep working from home, according to a study.
It would be wrong to suggest that these changes to our working environments are entirely bad, but for all the benefits, certain people will suffer without a having a workspace away from home.
For some, losing an office is akin to losing safety.
Between April and June 2020, calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline increased by 65%.
These dates coincide around the timing of the first national lockdown which, while necessary for the health of the nation, triggered a crisis in domestic violence cases, with more people needing access to support and safehouses.
Use of the ‘ask for ANI’ code, which subtly alerts someone that you’re in need of help with domestic abuse, has also increased – it’s now uttered every 30 hours across the UK.
[A safe workplace] was as important to me as breathing.
When your home environment is is physically, mentally and emotionally abusive or controlling, the importance of accessing an external workspace skyrockets.
It’s a no brainer that being forced to spend more time indoors with your abuser can result in more abuse.
A 2020 report by Women’s Aid shared that 61% of survivors said their abuse had worsened in the past year.
Lockdown was temporary, but those who’ve lost their workplaces permanently are now in a situation they didn’t anticipate and thus couldn’t prepare for.
Marianne* says her workplace was ‘very important’ in providing a level of protection during working hours from her now ex-partner, who was abusive.
‘Work was a safe haven, a place where I knew my then-partner could not get to me,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.
‘It had a gate, a service desk, and a no non-work-related visitor-allowed policy. It was perfect. It was also a place where I was not being told how weak, frail and ditsy I was – where I was taken seriously.
‘He would send me horrible emails, which I could choose not to “see”. He had no other way of contacting me there, as he himself had made sure I had no phone.
‘Looking back, it seems so sad that I felt least horrible when I was at work. But back then it was as important to me as breathing.’
Early in the pandemic, Marianne was kept housebound after her ex used illness as an excuse to keep her from going to work or elsewhere.
‘Not going to work meant no bus pass,’ she remembers. ‘This instantly took away my freedom of mobility.
‘I was then ordered never to go further than the front garden. So I was stuck in the house. I had no way of contacting friends or family. I was intensely lonely.
‘Then, my ex was told to work from home. This meant being stuck with him 24/7.
‘I had little to no contact with other people on a daily basis – only when my ex approved it or was present.’
Marianne reached a breaking point after three months of living like this, continuing: ‘I could not keep that life up. It became clear one of three things was going to happen.
‘My options were: carry on and eventually be killed, end it myself – or leave.
‘I was lucky, because, by this time, I was emotionally ready to leave. It had taken ten years for this third option to finally be available to me.
‘If lockdown had happened before that time, I think I would not be sitting here now to tell the tale.’
She’s incredibly worried about people in her former situation who have lost their working environments – and aren’t yet able to leave.
Though the Domestic Abuse Bill has just passed with some praise for outlawing the ‘rough sex defence’, this is just one small part of the legislation and charities have critiqued how it overlooks refugees along with other shortcomings.
It’s also a reactive piece of legislation, rather than proactive.
Sarah Davidge, research and evaluation manager at Women’s Aid, tells us: ‘The trend towards working from home may be welcome for some people but can create a new set of challenges for survivors living with domestic abuse.
‘We know that women working from home can be forced to endure further abuse whilst trying to work or study.’
Working from home policies overlook those suffering with mental health conditions, too, forming part of the ‘mental health pandemic’ we’re living through.
The idea of having more time in the mornings to get up, make an Instagram-friendly breakfast and even knock out a HIIT session, all in the name of wellness, is lovely.
But the reality for someone struggling mentally is likely to look closer to dragging themselves up out of bed a few minutes before the morning meeting.
Many will have benefitted from having more time at home, but others have missed the impact having a workplace had on their headspace.
George, a charity sector worker, says working from home has made living with OCD harder.
‘Before lockdown, I took a lot of comfort in a clean divide between where I worked, where I lived, and where I socialised,’ he explains.
‘The daily commute, that forced me out of my house when I might otherwise convince myself I couldn’t or shouldn’t leave, was pulled from beneath me.
‘It became impossible for OCD to be this separate entity that I left at home when I went to work. It was now always with me.’
Isolating people at home who typically look outwards to ‘control’ their mental health has been damaging.
For Lee, a salesperson in London, working from home has worsened her experience of depression.
She tells us: ‘I need to have a strong routine to manage it
‘A lot of the ways that I manage it is structurally, forcing myself to have to leave the house and making plans with people that I can’t get out of because if I have nothing planned and if I have no obligations I will do nothing.’
Lee says it’s the lack of choice that intensifies these problems. The idea of working from home used to appeal to her, believing it would be beneficial.
‘But having to work from home as had the opposite effect, where my mental health is more impacted by my work,’ she adds.
I didn’t sign up for my company essentially using office space in my bedroom for free.
Losing office space can make it difficult to communicate these issues to managers.
Clare, who has anxiety and is working on a temporary contract, will never meet her colleagues, which she calls a ‘missed opportunity’.
‘It’s so much easier to see how someone is doing in the flesh,’ she explains.
‘It’s easy at home to get distracted and get back into that negative space.’
Normally socially anxious when starting a new job, Clare tells us her anxiety has reversed this time – the longer she’s been in the role, the more anxious she’s felt, given the inability to ‘read social cues’.
She believes this long break from in-person working has been unhealthy for her, adding that: ‘At some point in your life when you have to go out, your body is going to be put into that shock situation.’
The welfare problems brought on by the loss of in-person working aren’t helped by unpleasant or unfit for working in home environments – a study by Hammonds Furniture revealed that that one in four don’t find their home a relaxing environment.
For those who are renting, there is less control over what that home environment looks and feels like.
George, whose rented bedroom is small, says his bed has become his desk and this is where he has to take Zoom meetings.
‘This inherently private space that is my home is now available for my boss, my boss’ boss and the people who pay my salary to see whenever they call,’ he says.
Another worker Ozymandias, said his housemate had to call up their neighbouring school repeatedly to ask them to turn down a daily ‘club’ soundtrack blared from speakers, which could be heard on video meetings.
Meanwhile Lee, who lives in a period property without fibre broadband, nearly lost a job due to bad internet – something completely out of her control and unreflective of her ability in the role.
‘Before my current job, I was in interim role and I got several warnings from the manager [saying] I was too slow,’ she says.
‘The place me and my flatmate live in has terrible Wi-Fi. If we can, we try to not schedule meetings at the same time as the other person because it does affect it, and I’ve had to upgrade my phone plan to use it as a hotspot constantly.
‘If one person is on a call, the other person’s emails won’t load,’ she says.
The agency that sold them the contract didn’t warn them of the issue and it’s since been something they’ve tried to fix, but it’s up to the owner of property to sign off.
As of yet, they’ve had no luck agreeing on this.
Rishi Sunak recently issued a warning that workers could quit if offices don’t reopen after lockdown.
While that might seem dramatic to some, it’s young people in particular – who didn’t sign up to this on a permanent basis – that are missing out on the perks that working in-person provides.
In the early stages of our careers, people benefit from being seen at work: it allows them to network, be in the mind’s of decision makers for promotions, and it creates social opportunities.
It’s no surprise that a study by Microsoft found that it’s older and senior staff who are enjoying the home shift the most – people who generally have a solid career network and comfortable home.
61% of leaders say they’re ‘thriving’ now, while 60% of the young adults surveyed are ‘flat-out struggling’.
Anita*, a young worker from a company that has officially gone remote forever, tells us she’s ‘upset’ about the decision.
‘I have started a new job and have been unable to meet any of my new colleagues face to face,’ says Anita. ‘Getting to know someone is incredibly difficult online.
‘I feel quite upset about the idea of working from home for good. I live in a small flat with two other people and space is limited.
‘The thought of not having my own desk and not seeing my colleagues is depressing, to say the least.
‘I didn’t sign up for my company essentially using office space in my bedroom for free.’
Having started at the company just a few months before they unveiled their plans to shift to remote working, Anita tells us she is worried that her progression in the role will be stalled and that she’ll miss out on training opportunities.
Anita continues: ‘I almost feel jealous in a way that a lot of my friends and flatmates are returning to work. Some have gone back this week and it feels like you’re missing out.
‘It’s quite a lonely feeling knowing I’ll be working at home in an empty flat with no excitement or anyone to chat to, like you would in an office.’
Lauren*, who is in the same situation but with a different now-remote company, echoes Anita’s concerns at a lack of ‘stakeholder engagement’, who in the company knows her, and feeling unstimulated alone at home.
She adds that going forward, she will ‘not apply for jobs that are 100% remote, instead looking for roles with flexibility, so she can go into an office when she wants to.
As well as the issue of networking, young people taking on their first job might still be living with family in their childhood bedrooms, potentially unable to work in any other rooms due to noisy siblings or older relatives.
Clare, who works in this setup, often worries about appearing unprofessional on Zoom calls, saying she has to quickly rearrange herself and angle her laptop in a particular way to hide the signs of being in her childhood room.
‘It’s not ideal because it stunts how you would naturally be and you have to always think about it every time someone calls,’ she explains.
‘I’ve had managers call just to check in and they’ve had their camera on and it’s that etiquette to have mine on too, so then it’s that thing of “Bear with me” […] it interrupts the work day to make sure everything is in order.’
Until financial or life circumstances change considerably, young people living at home will have to continue to navigate these issues, which may also include a lack of privacy or quiet.
As companies shift their working dynamics long-term, they must consider that traditional offices – though flawed – provided comfort and refuge for some
The future of the office is on shaky ground and alternative workspaces will likely flourish as more venues reopen, but employees without an ideal home, finances or senior status shouldn’t become collateral damage.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
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