December 2nd: will working-from-home stick?

In addition to being an interesting socio-economic phenomenon, working-from-home (or other remote work) has huge implications for certain sectors, not least public transport and hospitality near offices and other workplaces. In my view, it is too early to conclude anything about the longer-term, structural changes to people’s typical work locations, mainly because there are powerful forces pushing in both directions.

A significant proportion of those employees who can work remotely with decent productivity say they would like to do more of it in the future. In a recent survey, about 10% of people said they would like their work to be fully remote, and about 50% said they would prefer a hybrid model, up from 30% pre-pandemic. However, there are two big counteracting forces (and many more, more subtle ones, such as importance of face time for promotion).

First, as I’ve mentioned before (yes, probably ad nauseam), only about 30% of tasks in the UK’s current economy can be productively performed remotely. Second, whatever the employees’ wishes, only a minority of businesses expect to continue with hybrid work post-pandemic. Third, much of the remote work debate is more relevant for high-income countries, where the vast majority of people work in services, rather than manufacturing or agriculture.

That’s the big picture. But for those sectors, occupations, teams and individuals for whom remote work is both possible and attractive, it does seem that people are voting with their feet en masse (even though remaining COVID-19 restrictions are clearly playing a role, too). The ever-interesting (and remarkably timely) Google mobility data illustrates this well — not just for the UK, but across all economies.

For high-income economies (dark blue line in the chart), workplace mobility in November 2021 (on a population-weighted basis) remained around 15% below pre-pandemic levels. There was, unsurprisingly, significant variation amongst high-income countries. For example, across the US, Canada, France, UK and Ireland, workplace mobility in November was around 25-30% down on January 2020. On the other hand, in New Zealand, Israel, Japan and Australia, workplace mobility was down by less than 15%.

There are probably two lessons from this data so far. First, let’s keep fighting the temptation to extrapolate from the US to the rest of the world. Most countries in the world are quite different. Second, at least in the UK, the gulf between employees’ priorities and employers’ intentions is significant. While the “great attrition” may not have reached Europe yet, undeniable talent shortages should surely make many employees think again.

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I help complex organisations make the right strategic decisions through innovative, insightful and incisive analysis and recommendations.

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Tera Allas

Tera Allas

I help complex organisations make the right strategic decisions through innovative, insightful and incisive analysis and recommendations.

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