Work from home? Most people don’t have that option

Tim Ringo with BA Flight crew

One of the big stories of the past seven months has been the sudden move of millions of people to working from home. Tim Ringo looks at what it’s like for those who cannot work from home in a pandemic?

In June, the number of people working exclusively from home in the UK hit nearly 40%. It has since fallen back to 28%, however, with new restrictions coming back into effect this number will surely go up, again. However, even as the work from home numbers go back up, the majority of people cannot work from home. This is the untold story of 2020. In October, before the latest lockdown measures, I embarked on a journey from London back to my home state, Ohio, to vote in the 2020 elections, I took the opportunity to talk to those that could not work from home to understand what the last seven months have been like for them, But first, some data to put the current situation, in perspective.

In July, the UK Office of National Statistics published a detailed study of what work looks like during the COVID19 pandemic.  It concluded that working from home has become very popular but that it is easier for some and not so easy for others. For example, professional occupations such as actuaries, economists and statisticians are most likely to be able to be done from home. Jobs like these,
alongside management, technical and administrative jobs, involve relatively little face-to-face contact, physical activity or use of tools or equipment.

By contrast, other occupations including cleaners, waiting staff and security guards together with process, plant and machine operatives, are much less likely to be able to work remotely. Among the jobs least likely to be able to work from home are also frontline workers, many of which have been designated as “key workers” during the coronavirus pandemic. These include police officers, paramedics, and – scoring lowest on the scale – firefighters.

ONS also found there is a gender split to those who can and cannot work from home. The top 20% of workers most likely to be able to work from home are fairly representative of the gender split in the workforce as a whole: 49% are women. On the other hand, the fifth of workers least likely to be able to work from home are mostly men: 75% of workers in these jobs are men, compared with 48% of the whole workforce. Add to this an economic split that shows that the median earnings of employees in the 20% of the workforce most likely to be able to work from home is £19.01, compared with £11.28 for workers in the 20% of workers in jobs least likely to be adaptable to home working.

This data backs up what I saw during my journey back to Ohio. First, I took an Uber to Heathrow, and Maria, my driver described “a very different world, everything has changed”.  She told me that she stopped driving from end of March until end of September, as she was concerned about having too much contact with the public.  However, as money ran out, she had to get back to work in October. She said the job is harder, and the work is for significantly less money than before.  She spends a lot of time disinfecting her car, all while the number of rides are less than half of what she had before the pandemic.  However, she was upbeat, and “very happy to be back to work”, telling me that her daughter had been working from home, as  she had just graduated from university and was able to find a job as a graphic designer.  Perfect job for working from home.  So, overall, she was content with her situation and felt safe, as “most everyone wears a mask” and obeys the guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID19.

After I checked in, I made my way to the BA lounge in Terminal 5 and was surprised to find that it was quite busy.  Much had changed from my last visit in February.  Perspex screens divided the sofas, no drinks or food were set out.  In speaking to one of the managers she explained that the lounge was busy throughout lockdown, as BA had shut operations at Gatwick, so the Terminal 5 lounge was the main one for all BA flights. She pointed out that if I wanted food or drinks, all I had to do was scan the QR code at my table and then choose from the menu.  Within about 3 mins, my order showed up, by a heavily PPE’d server!  Super.  The lounge manager went on to tell me that certainly, the job was more work and more difficult than before, however, the staff in the lounge were happy to be at work, having not been furloughed during the Spring lockdown.

Next up, flight BA293 to Washington Dulles. The flight had about 30 people on it, so was pretty sparse, however appeared to be fully staffed with the usual number of flight attendants. In talking to the attendants I learned that not only had they been doing the usual flights, they (and some BA aircraft) had been repurposed early on in the pandemic, to fly to China to pick up PPE.  Something they never would have envisioned ever doing in their career and was an exciting change from the normal job.  They also reported feeling safe and not concerned with coming down ill, as passengers faithfully obeyed the guidelines to keep each other safe. Good news.

After a very pleasant flight to the US, I checked into my hotel, the Hyatt Regency Dulles.  Speaking to the front desk clerk, Kim, I found another cheerful worker, happy to be doing her job during difficult times.  Kim told me that the job was certainly harder than before, but that her colleagues all “pitched in” to keep the hotel running, as occupancy was steadily going up.  She described a very different job than what she had been doing pre-pandemic, where everyone “multitasked”.  Including cleaning rooms, serving in the restaurant, or doing simple maintenance jobs, regardless of role.  She also said that managers were doing the same, even cleaning toilets, when needed – “everyone does their part”.  She said the managers had earned a new level of credibility and trust in the process.

Not able to find a suitable a flight to my hometown Columbus, Ohio, I rented a car and drove from D.C. – a 7 hour trip. Popping into restaurants for a bite, or filling up on petrol, I found upbeat workforces, just carrying on as best they could.  Everyone being careful to follow mask and social distancing guidelines as well as keeping premises sparkling clean.

However, I think underneath the “keep calm, and carry on” attitudes, there was a definite sense that things have changed forever, especially for those who cannot work from home. As COVID19 cases spike in Europe and in the USA, there is a pervasive sense of uncertainty about the future; will there be a job to go to when this is all over?  It will be a long winter, however, I felt inspired by the brave and committed people I met and came away with a feeling that, one day in the not too distant future, all will be well again. I came away optimistic we will fight through, no matter where we work.

Tim’s new book Solving the Productivity Puzzle published with Kogan Page is out now. You can see videos from Tim’s recent travels on his YouTube Channel, Tim Talk.