The pandemic and work-life balance

9 July 2020

Can working from home and more affordable housing costs become a central part of our post-pandemic future?

Silas Scott

Like millions of people across the UK, I have been working from home since the onset of the pandemic. The university where I work closed its campus in late March, sending its thousands of students, academics, and other staff back to wherever ‘home’ is for them – North London, in my case. Of course my circumstances are hardly unique and is similar to the experiences of people working across a vast array of sectors and jobs.

Although daunting at first, I have actually really enjoyed the expereince of working from home. Everyone’s personal situation is different, but I am sure that many people will agree with me, at least to some extent. No more morning rush for the train to be squashed next to a fellow commuters. No more getting home and realising you have spent your ‘free’ evening sitting on buses and delayed trains. I don’t have children myself but, if I did, I can imagine how nice it would be to spend my free time with them and not on the 18:50 from London Waterloo to Reading. This of course would rely on schools reopening so parents do not bare the brunt of full time cairing and educational responsibilities though.

Employers across the country have shown that they are ill-prepared for the post-coronavirus reality of socially distanced working. For instance, to accommodate a worksforce that is alternatively out with clients or in the office, many companies have pursued a policy of ‘hot-desking’, where no one has a permanent desk and often there are insufficient work stations for all employees to be in the office at once. These conditions are ripe for the spread of infections. Moreover, regardless of how many hand sanitiser stations a company provides, a commuter workforce poses a constant threat to the spread of infection.

Simultaneously, there seems to be a cultural shift taking place. Employers are starting to realise that employees are perfectly capable of doing what they need to do from home. Facilitated by the increased take-up of the likes of Zoom and Microsoft Teams, many employers now understand that physical distance does not necessarily involve a drop in productivity. Cleraly, this could have a major impact on the ways that we live and work.

Personally, I have never considered working anywhere other than London. The bright lights of the city, Parliament, the BBC, the thousands of museums, companies and firms that are based in the capital all draw me to ‘The Old Smoke’. But, with the move to working from home, perhaps my attitude will change.

Traditionally, conservative thinking has suggested that home ownership represents a tangible stake in society. One only has to look back to the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s as an example of this, a policy that has contributed massively to the contemporary housing crisis by taking social housing out of circulation and by promoting the notion of home ownership at all cost.

More recently, in December 2019, Eddie Hughes, MP for Walsall North, argued in an article for Inside Housing that “the dream to own a home has always been at the heart of British society and the Conservative Party prides itself on being the party of aspiration.”As an under-30, the idea of ever being able to afford to buy somewhere within the M25 – the motorway encircling most of London – feels like an unrealistic ambition. To again quote Eddie Hughes, “when asked in a Santander survey, nine in 10 young adults said that they aspired to own their own home, but seven of them believed that the dream of ownership was over for their generation. That’s not fair, that’s not right and it is our responsibility to revitalise this dream.” According to Hughes, “often the biggest hurdle to ownership is raising a deposit.” The answer for this, he believes, lies in extending long-term mortgages to young people. However, this idea post the pandemic will potentially be unappealing for banks and lenders, who see lending money to young people as needlessly risky. Indeed, in recent weeks the Nationwide Building Society has lowered their loan-to-value ceiling from 95% to 85%, thus tripling the minimum deposit first-time buyers must front-up for a mortgage.

This pandemic has exposed a number of uncomfortable truths, one of which is that young people are most vulnerable to the economic damage caused by lockdown. Young people predominate in unstable, low-paid work, and workers at the beginning of their careers are more vulnerable to being fired or of having their flexible contracts rescinded. Since the 2008 crash in particular, lending practices have been under significant scrutiny, and lending to young people has been increasingly seen as a risk not worth taking for many banks and building societies.

For some, there is also the prospect of accessing the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’, to get help onto the property ladder. According to a report from Legal & General in 2019  “the average contribution of generous families and friends has increased by more than £6,000 this year to a massive £24,100. And in some areas it’s even higher – £31,000 on average in London”. Referring to the Bank of Mum and Dad, Legal & General argue that its “contribution dwarfs government schemes to address the problem of housing affordability, such as the Help to Buy schemes.”

Although benevolent and understandable for those who can afford it, there are clear problems when it comes to the Bank of Mum and Dad supporting young people to enter the housing market. Primarily, it is only applicable to the middle and upper classes who can use accumulated wealth as a means of securing property for their children. Any progressive policy cannot be based on vested wealth being passed along generations. Worryingly too, according to the findings of a report commissioned by the Family Building Society “parents can face a difficult choice between helping children and setting money aside for their own care in later life”.

Without dramatic change, the market in London and in many cities across the UK will continue to alienate especially young people who don’t have access to significant amounts of disposable cash. The conservative dream of home ownership as an integral feature of a meritocracy is, and always has been, a misnomer.

From my perspective as a young professional, if I knew that I could pursue the low-paying jobs that are available in the sectors that I would actually love to work in, while working at home to some extent, my tentative plans for my future would change drastically. With more home-working, the housing market would become much less about the borders of the M25, and the ability to commute to London in my case, and more about affordability and quality of life.

The introduction of more flexible working and commuting practices could thus not only transform my own life, but could also have have major positive implications for communities outside of London. Such towns could be rejuvenated with an influx of young professionals, while workers who currently leave at the crack of dawn to make it to London or to other major cities for the working day could skip the gruelling commute.

On top of this, it is worth noting that employers are presently under considerable strain. The government-sponsored furlough scheme cannot act as a dam to hold the tide of economic catastrophie that will inevitably follow in the wake of the pandemic forever. But if companies could hire more workers from outside of London, or could even relocate to different communities, this could ease the pressure to pay London-weighted salaries. Similarly, spending on office space could be dramatically reduced. Perhaps for some, the office may even become a thing of the past, as meetings are increasingly held online, in cafes, or in shared and flexible workspaces, which could free-up money and capital to be used other purposes, including training, innovation and wages.

Notably, any move towards further flexibility in the workplace may improve access to the job market for people who have been, until this point, disadvantaged, including people with disablities or with caring responsibilities, for example.

I appreciate that not everyone has the opportunity to work from home. More than ever, we have been made aware of the particular circumstances of those whose work is rooted in physical settings outside of the home environment, including frontline medical professionals, shopkeepers, police officers and delivery drivers. All that said, I cannot help but feel like the ground beneeth our feet is starting to shift. I myself have started to think about the future, and whether the ability to work from home may change things for me and may recast communities across the UK and throughout the world.

Relying on the market alone to provide affordable housing or relying on corporations to change their workplace habits into something totally transformative is in itself not a holistic nor progressive viable solution to the issue of housing and work.  COVID-19 has undoubtedly caused a rethink on the part of businesses but in other circumstances, this change would have been unlikely. Progressive leaders should do more to tap into this area of policy-making, and show that not only are the Conservative Party the party in pursuit of home ownership. Rather, by putting home-working as a central heart of policy, the left can show a combination of imaginative thinking and empathy coming out of the pandemic.

As a starting point, progressives should not be afraid to be the source of change in relation to home-working. For a start, a Bill that mandates that companies cannot discriminate against those who have sufficient ground to work from home would be a very good start. This immediately would provide cover to those shielding from COVID-19. The power of the law would mean that employees can consider housing options beyond the big cities thus transforming the housing landlape.

Secondly, the government could  consider paying grants to companies who are engaging with the cultural change to working from home. Incentivising this by paying for equipment for instance would open up a dialogue between central government and firms.

In the last election, Jeremy Corbyn was dirided for his policy on free wifi across the country. At the time, I was not such a fan of it myself either, but no one could have forseen the pandemic round the corner. Pursuing a policy of reliable internet connection across the country should be a must. Working with the private sector on this policy is also very possible. With stable internet across the country, this removes barriers to living and working outside of cities.

Drawing on my own experiences, if I was required to work in London only once or twice a week, a longer commute would not be such an issue, and if I could work from home for the rest of the week, then I would no longer be bound to live within close proximity of the city. The money saved compared to London housing prices, would mean more money in my pocket and more money I could spend and invest in my local comunity. This would definietely be a start, and form the bedrock of policy in this area. Relating this back to that of family capital too, any move towards more affordable housing in the future undermines wealth disparities and also puts less pressure on older generations to take responsibility for their children.

Whether the aftershock will cause as much of a transformation as I hope is still unclear, but as the world stumbles towards a new normal, things will almost certainly change. All I can hope for is that things do not go back to the old status quo, and that working from home might become a central part of the ‘new normal’ in the future.