A headline in the Daily Mail recently screamed: “Is this the end for working from home? Britons who shun the office could pay up to an extra £209 a month in energy costs this winter, warn experts, who say rising bills could drive people back to their desks.”
It sounds logical. If workers are staying at home all day, rather than visiting the office, then heating your workspace and using the kettle all day will just add to your own personal energy bills. Perhaps it makes sense to spend all day in a warm heated office where hot drinks are freely available?
The UK is in the midst of an energy price crisis at present. At the end of August, MoneySavingExpert founder Martin Lewis, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:
“I’ve been accused of catastrophising over this situation. Well, the reason I have catastrophised is this is a catastrophe, plain and simple. If we do not get further government intervention on top of what was announced in May, lives will be lost this winter.”
The Daily Mail is focusing on these fears of greater price increases and how this may affect our ability to heat homes and pay for typical energy use.
However, the same article also suggests that working from home is seriously impacting mental health. It quotes the cultural writer Malcolm Gladwell from a recent podcast interview saying:
“It’s very hard to feel necessary when you’re physically disconnected,” adding that “as we face the battle that all organisations are facing now in getting people back into the office, it’s really hard to explain this core psychological truth, which is that we want to have a feeling of belonging and to feel necessary.”
So what’s the reality?
Yes energy bills are getting more expensive, but it’s worth looking at the end of the Daily Mail article for some clarification on their data.
There is a very small correction to the article that admits the headline data is based on mid-winter usage. Effectively when creating the headline figures for how much it costs to work from home, the newspaper is suggesting that each year has twelve Januaries.
The Malcolm Gladwell description of corporate culture is also misleading. Many companies sent workers home with very little support in the early days of the pandemic. If they continue to have no support system, and tools to interact with, in 2022 then it’s easy to agree with Gladwell.
The reality is that companies have embraced remote and hybrid workers and created systems that allow workplace interaction and social activities. Culture really isn’t created by meeting in office canteens, it is built by teams that know there is a value in the work they are performing.
Most employees don’t want to give up on the flexibility that working from home offers. It’s easy to imagine that most of us could place a cash value on the flexibility we get when working from home.
Not just the immediate gains from removing the cost of commuting, but also all those expensive coffees and snacks in addition to overpriced sandwiches at lunchtime.
These direct costs can also be combined with the value of flexibility. Would you work for less if you could see your family more often or have the flexibility to help a family member that requires care at home? Many people would.
If you combine this theoretical “value of flexibility” with the cost of commuting and buying lunch at the office then the energy bills are not quite as scary as the media would lead us to believe.
The new British Prime Minister, Liz Truss, has announced a freeze on energy price increases so the reality at present is ever-changing.
This plan aims to limit the average maximum household energy bill to around £2,500 annually for the next two years – during which time a longer term solution has to be created. This is not a cheap solution for the government, but it does allow consumers to plan ahead with more confidence than they had a month ago.
Whatever happens, working from home creates enormous value in supporting employee flexibility and diversity.
To suggest that the value of flexibility cannot be compared to energy bills is absurd. Newspapers often have a specific agenda or opinion, but it is disheartening to see so many facts about workplace culture clearly ignored just for a misleading headline.