Podcast: An office of one’s own


This month’s Dividing Lines podcast in partnership with The Near Futurist ask if remote working has already had its day. Host Guy Clapperton pitches Professor Christoph Siemroth of the University of Essex against Dr Nicola Millard of BT. Take a listen here

Flexible working is some sort of Nirvana, right? That’s what it looks like according to a large number of newspapers, websites and other commentators. Knowledge workers can pick up their information from any connected device wherever they are and get stuck right in and they are more productive. There’s no problem.

Unless they work for Twitter in which case they are obligated to come into the office. That’s been very high profile because new owner Elon Musk attracts a lot of attention but it was becoming an issue already. Lord Alan Sugar has been quite vocal about how he sees home workers as “skivers”. Plus everyone’s going to go off the idea when the prospect of heating your home office starts to become a reality as the cost of living crisis conspires with a cold winter.

That’s the impression you might gather from a glance at the headlines but as you might expect, the reality is a lot more nuanced which is something we explore in the latest edition of Dividing Lines, the series-within-a-series from the Near Futurist that is sponsored by Diffusion PR. In this episode, host Guy Clapperton speaks to Prof. Christoph Siemroth of the University of Essex, who is distinctly cautious about flexible working, and Dr. Nicola Millard of BT who is more welcoming of it.

Christoph’s view was based a lot on research he had worked on with the University of Chicago (you can find it here), which suggests that productivity and output actually fall when someone works from home. It’s important to note that he is an economist so productivity, output and frankly money are likely to be his prime criteria but he also defended office-based working against the idea that it damages work/life balance; if you work from home and have to work longer, his argument runs, you actually have less time to spare for the “life” side of work/life.

Nicola had conducted other research that suggested people felt more productive when they were deciding how and where to carry out their tasks (although Christoph offered a sanity check on whether people feeling productive translated into reality). Her data said people offered autonomy will be more motivated and this will morph into better productivity but equally importantly, people staying put was better for the planet.

Neither was all-in or all-against for flexible working although where they diverged they still tended to disagree. Christoph suggested that a quieter environment such as the home might suit someone working in a contact centre where they didn’t need so much supervision; Nicola’s experience suggested that if someone was taking a stressful call then that’s exactly when you do need to be with them. “You can’t see tears remotely,” she pointed out. In terms of the cost of living crisis, both were quick to point out that a £2000 increase in heating costs sounded bad but minus an expensive travel card for work it might balance out.

There are no glib answers on offer – but this edition explores issues employers and employees will be facing increasingly in the coming months and years.