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The time bomb in the new world of work


Once the Covid crisis has subsided, the workweek will be pleasantly transformed for millions of employees into a pleasant mix of a few days at the office and a few days at home.

Or so I thought until last week when I spoke to Nicolas bloom, an award-winning British economist from Stanford University whose startling research into working from home began years before the pandemic.

His last co-authored study, based on months of surveys of 22,500 Americans through December, suggests working from home is here to stay.

Workers and businesses have found it to be better than expected. Both invested money in the necessary equipment ($ 600 for the average worker). The stigma of “going out of the home” has faded. No one wants to go back to grim five-day office trips.

Overall, workers believe that being able to work from home two or three days a week is as valuable as a pay rise of around 8%.

But there is one problem, or rather several problems, according to Bloom, who speaks regularly with managers to try to figure out how to make the new world of work work.

One thing is already clear, he said. “Mixed mode is a complete horror.” By that he means a mixed team of, say, five people at home and four in the office, all of whom have trouble getting along on poorly connected Zoom calls.

Even when technology is working, people at home know they will miss out on crucial post-meeting moments that only office workers can have.

“It’s a disaster,” Bloom says. “So companies are really trying to organize it so that you are all at home or all at work.”

But there’s another thing that he says managers are even more concerned about: a looming “crisis of discrimination” if workers are allowed to work from home as often as they want.

Bloom’s research suggests there is cause for concern. A to study He did on a major Chinese travel company that tested working from home nearly ten years ago showed that people at home were promoted at about half the rate of those in the office.

Researchers have often heard that people at home are forgotten, while office workers develop more “management capital” by eating lunch, having coffee, or chatting with each other and with their bosses.

Bloom says her most recent research strengthens her belief that if workers are allowed to choose how many days they work from home, certain groups, such as women with young children, will almost certainly end up doing more homework. that others.

Three years later, their promotion rates will be “considerably lower” than those of, say, ambitious single young men who come five days a week, and a plethora of lawsuits will ensue.

That’s why he urges companies not to let staff choose willy-nilly how many days they spend at home.

“I think companies have to be paternalistic about this,” he says.

They should try to find ways to ensure that everyone comes on the same days and works from home on the same days. “Otherwise, you’re going to have this time bomb.”

It could be tricky: His new data shows more than 30% of workers never want to work from home, or want to do so infrequently, or just one day a week.

Yet at least these workers have a choice. Many people have jobs that require them to move things or drive, despite the increased risk of infection, while their office colleagues stay at home.

“They’re really pissed off,” Bloom says, and their managers don’t know what to do. One answer seems obvious: pay them more. Some companies might do it, but market forces suggest that many others will not. Low-skilled jobs are among those hit the hardest in the pandemic. The bargaining power of those who hold them is weak.

In other words, the workers most likely to lose their jobs are the same ones who cannot reap the benefits of working from home.

For those of us who find ourselves in a company with stricter rules than expected about when we can and cannot work outside the office, this may be worth considering.

pilita.clark@ft.com
Twitter:
@pilitaclark





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