Chances for progression are likely to be hindered, too. Young people have already been hit hard by coronavirus: one in three 18 to 25-year-olds lost their job or were furloughed during the crisis. But they will face even more challenges so long as companies stay clear of the office. If they do manage to secure a job, the best shot they have at building up professional contacts is a coffee over Zoom (which established employees naturally dread). All upskilling efforts will be left to online courses, as the concept of learning on the job fades into obscurity. There will be no conversations to overhear, tricks to pick up or off-the-cuff corrections and suggestions to take on board. Work – especially for those without contacts or experience – will boil down to its most basic and boring core: ticking a series of boxes in exchange for a pay slip, with no expectation of getting more out of the job.
But even the most protected employee – the experienced worker – should have clocked that some of the benefits of working from home are illusory. Facebook is already touting the idea of pegging salary to location: if you’re choosing to work from a cheaper area, your salary may well fall accordingly. This reflects a wider question about how businesses will restructure their staffing models in the medium term: if no one is coming to the office, why does the worker need to be in London or Surrey, when people could be hired at a cheaper rate in Northern Ireland – or, for that matter, Mumbai?
Perhaps that’s no bad thing; working opportunities lost in cities are gained in rural areas or even abroad. But a nation-wide shift to home working may indeed be the start of a far more structural shift. Many companies will have noticed during lockdown that some of their staff do not really do enough to justify being paid to work for five days a week. Why not hire freelancers instead for those tasks? This would be a serious change for those who like the benefits, pension contributions and parental leave that currently go hand-in-hand with most office jobs. Perhaps people can keep the comforts of working from home – but that comfort might no longer include job security.
The embrace of working from home may be the latest Tragedy of the Commons: workers acting in a way they think will profit them individually, while putting everyone’s livelihoods and job opportunities at risk. Those who think they have achieved the best of both worlds may be sorely mistaken. This is a pandemic, not a holiday, and there is much more pain to come – even for the office untouchables.
Kate Andrews is economics correspondent at The Spectator