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The science of working from home

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Working from home is clearly here to stay, but it divides opinion. Surely the time has come for scientific research into the pros and cons of different working environments.

26th May 2022
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We now live in a climate where “following the science” has become a popular mantra.

As rational accountants, most of us would happily subscribe to this principle as a means of optimising the performance of our people and our business, not to mention ensuring that we can enjoy the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed regardless of the vicissitudes of the cost-of-living crisis.

Therefore, it is odd to discover that there seem to be few, if any, scientific studies about the efficacy of working from home, whether in office jobs generally or our own profession.

Surely, it should be possible to carry out detailed analyses comparing the output of those who spend their time in the office with colleagues who prefer to work in the comfort of their own kitchens, living rooms or home offices. At the same time, the experts might be able to ascertain the mental health benefits (time with family) or dangers (loneliness) of such a strategy.

The answers might well not be definitive and it would ideally be necessary to break the workers down into categories to obtain optimum data. In particular, there may well be different results for those who work 100% at an office location, 100% at home or a relatively even spread between the two.

There is also the issue of different rules for different roles. The working practices of extrovert partners who are intent on pressing the flesh and marketing their wares will be very different from those of their secretaries. On a similar track, auditors, tax specialists and insolvency practitioners have very different working profiles.

Distraction dilemmas

From a personal perspective, I can get far more work done if I spend a day at home than I can when travelling into central London and attempting to achieve the same output in a noisy office environment, with its inevitable constant interruptions. Gone are the days when you could lock yourself away behind a closed door in most accountants’ buildings, given the popularity of open-plan design.

However, working 8 to 10 hours a day at least five days a week locked away from humanity isn’t always that much fun. You certainly get more work done but at what cost?

This may come down to personality. I have some friends who hate working from home, while others given an absolutely open choice would probably pick on office attendance on average one day a week, purely to meet up with colleagues and friends thereby helping to build business.

It is also notable that fewer clients seem enthusiastic about face-to-face meetings unless they are strictly necessary.

Office politics

Those on either end of the political spectrum have equally different and equally unscientific opinions about this topic.

Ironically for someone who proclaims himself a libertarian, Jacob Rees-Mogg is in favour of maximum prescription, forcing civil servants to return to the office, regardless of whether this is a good or a bad thing in terms of their levels of achievement.

As one would expect, his boss has a more airy-fairy view, vaguely suggesting that returns to the office would be a good idea while very reasonably reminding us that younger workers, who require mentoring, undoubtedly benefit from the opportunity to witness and learn from colleagues in close proximity.

Those who believe in big and more intrusive government (that is, the Labour Party and trade unions) take a more liberal approach, suggesting that there could be benefits to all in promoting a hybrid approach or maybe even permitting but not enforcing full-time working from home.

Business supremos seem to be equally divided. Some banks are banging the drum about getting everybody back in the office full-time at the same time as others are desperate to introduce an approach involving work from home for at least two to three days a week.

Accountants are equally uncertain, with the majority appearing to favour a hybrid approach with that 40/60% split in one direction or other.

Concrete data

Legal practice Stephenson Harwood has been in the vanguard on this topic recently, making a big song and dance about permitting employees to work from home permanently, but only if they are willing to sacrifice 20% of their salary.

Opinions are all very well but it would be far better for experts to carry out some kind of time-and-motion study and provide us with concrete data.

Given that homeworking has been increasing in popularity for at least a decade, one might expect that kind of information to pop up in the very near future. We’ve all met the managing partner who doesn’t believe that anyone is working unless he can see it with his own eyes. Therefore, once the data finally emerges, the question might then be whether prejudice will overcome science to the detriment of all concerned.

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By Hugo Fair
26th May 2022 16:50

Nice idea for a story ... but akin to asking why we "don't follow the science" with regard, say, to the efficacy of paracetamol.
And the answer is because there are too many variables to handle to ensure quality research (people are almost infinitely non-standard biologically, as are their reasons for taking the pain killers and the way in which they take them, let alone how you determine any baselines for measuring effectiveness).
Now ask your question again with regard to office-based/WFH/hybrid combinations ...

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