Why five days in the office doesn’t add up
This is a story about a man named James, a woman named Julie and anyone else still grappling with the new world of office work that Covid unleashed almost exactly three years ago.
James Long is a veteran financier in London who founded a boutique clean energy financial advisory firm called Longreach Capital in 2019, just before the pandemic broke out.
One of his first hires was 30-something Julie Gimenez, who was then in London working on infrastructure investments at one of Europe’s largest banks.
As Britain locked down, Long stayed in London and Gimenez moved to a sunnier city in southern Europe. She’s still there now and Long is still in London, working in the firm’s St James’s Square office several days a week.
Gimenez comes to the London office at least once a month for a few days and travels abroad often for work meetings. The firm is doing well. It arranged one of the UK’s biggest green hydrogen financing deals in the past 12 months. But its working arrangements are what Long calls “an ongoing conversation” and Gimenez calls “a hot topic”.
They agree some work must be done in person, such as client meetings, and some is easily done remotely, like paperwork to complete a deal. They also agree it’s good for younger staff to work in person with more experienced people.
But there is less accord about a third category of tasks such as devising a presentation for an upcoming client meeting, or internal team meetings.
Long says: “I have a tendency to say that most things should be done physically, but I appreciate there is scope for remote work.”
Gimenez, however, says the pandemic showed how efficient and productive she could be when free to focus deeply at home, away from office distractions. “Now that I know that, it’s frustrating to have to meet in person when I know it isn’t going to help with what I’m working on.”
She also thinks much time is wasted flying to business meetings that could be easily held online. Long feels much of professional life is about turning up.
So who is right? Three years after hybrid or remote working took off, do we know if it saps or boosts productivity? Were the likes of Elon Musk right to order workers back to the office or else?
Answers are starting to emerge — for some types of work in some types of businesses. They were set out in a recently revised National Bureau of Economic Research paper co-authored by Stanford University economist, Professor Nick Bloom, whose advice on hybrid work is followed widely by companies.
Studies before and during the pandemic showed the productivity of call centre staff working at home rose by about 10 per cent.
But not everyone works like a call centre employee, and another study of graduates working in teams at an Asian IT company found productivity sank by at least 8 per cent after they were abruptly sent home when the pandemic struck.
These staff, however, went from fully in-office to fully remote work in a rush and, as Bloom’s paper says, there was no randomised control group so the results are hard to assess.
More answers come from a randomised trial of both managers and non-managers at a large tech company that Bloom carried out in 2021 and 2022. One group worked at home on Wednesdays and Fridays. The other stayed in the office full-time.
The result? There was no sign that hybrid homeworking either raised or lowered productivity significantly. But workers liked it and attrition rates fell by a third.
The bottom line, Bloom told me last week, is that people who say working from home hurts productivity are often talking about fully remote work, which can affect productivity — but can also attract staff and lower office costs.
Companies must calculate that trade-off. But for managers and professionals, Bloom says the evidence shows a mix of working at home and in the office is win-win. “It doesn’t make sense to go back to five days a week.”
Ultimately, that means a lot of people are, like Longreach’s Long and Gimenez, set to keep prodding and challenging each other to slowly make a new way of working work.