Thank Fathom it's Friday

Pals, Pradas, PJs and the UK’s reluctance to get back to work

11 September 2020|

A sideways look at economics

We Brits often view the working habits and customs of our European compatriots with an interesting mix of admiration and confusion; late starts to the working day, mid-afternoon siestas, and congé annuel — the customary annual holiday that sees economic activity virtually grind to a halt in August. But in finding that balance between work and play, it seems Europeans are not only more productive within the office but also more willing to return to the office.

According to various surveys, only around a third of UK office workers have returned to their place of work, compared to more than two-thirds in France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. While it’s true that working from home has been easier than previously thought, ditching the Pradas for PJs and saving time and money on the early morning commute, that revelation isn’t unique to the UK.

When discussing this with fellow Fathomites last month, it was suggested that it’s just a matter of time, with the UK’s return to more ‘normal’ working habits simply lagging behind the rest of Europe — a consequence of COVID-19 afflicting the UK later. But now, a month or so since the first surveys emerged, little seems to have materially changed.

Just 7% of those I know have returned to the office full time, with 34% working a day or two in the office every week. That means almost 60% still haven’t returned all,[1] with office re-opening dates now being deferred to the New Year and employers cottoning on that they can save a fortune and oblige their reluctant staff by transitioning to a new work model.

So why are UK workers clinging on to their loungewear?

One idea is that we enjoy our own company more, preferring solitude over collaboration. Presumably, such preferences would be evident in everyday lifestyle choices, such as solitary living, but as the chart below reveals, living alone is not a uniquely British thing. Instead, it’s a reflection wealth,[2] with GDP per capita and the proportion of single occupancy households positively correlated. In other words, Brits have no more of a ‘genetic disposition’ to social distancing and confinement than any other nationality.

So, perhaps we simply value our time with work colleagues less?

Research from Vodafone suggests that we do miss our places of work, with over 40% of those surveyed missing spending time with workmates, office jokes and light-hearted conversation. But perhaps just not as much as our European counterparts, whose approach to the working day (research suggests) is likely to help foster closer friendships, in turn transforming work into a place of fun and personal development, as opposed to a means to an end — a way to pay the rent.

Surrounded by meaningful friendships, workplaces may well be more collaborative environments, promoting both engagement and interest, which is proven to increase productivity. But building friendships takes time. According to research by Jeffrey Hall (‘How many hours does it take to make a friend?‘ [2018]), it takes between 40 to 60 hours of time spent together to transition from a mere acquaintance to casual friendship, 80 to 100 hours to become a friend, and more than 200 hours to become a good friend.

The fact that friendships take time is of little surprise, but Hall’s research — which models friendship status as a function of hours together, shared activities and everyday talk —  also reveals that the type of time spent together matters for the friendship status. Time spent hanging out, watching movies or gaming was associated with a greater degree of friendship, whereas time spent at work was associated with a lower degree of closeness.

These findings echo that of previous studies, confirming that time spent together is a vital part of any friendship, but that the way that time is spent is just (if not more) important. Perhaps, in having a better balance between work and play, Europeans have stumbled across a friendship sweet spot, with positive work relations rendering them both more eager to return to the office and maybe more productive too![3]

[1] Across all sectors of the UK economy, from office workers to construction site workers, the proportion that haven’t returned to their place of work is much lower, at just 36% according to the ONS.

[2] Aging populations will also play a role.

[3] Of course, other aspects will play a role too, such as the length and cost of commuting, which in the UK is likely to be a big factor, meaning the potential savings from working from home are greater. (My colleague Ellie Henderson looked at possible productivity gains in an earlier post.)

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