PwC boss: Why I fear poor youngsters are hit hardest by the WFH habit

Why I fear poor youngsters are hit hardest by the WFH habit: PwC boss warns social mobility will stall if we don’t return to the office

The past 18 months have seen a monumental change in the way we work as staff have been confined to their homes. For many people this has been the perfect working environment. 

But by ‘many people’ I definitely don’t mean everyone. It’s been a struggle for the cafes and restaurants near our offices across the UK, not to mention the cab drivers and dry cleaners. 

Dig deeper among office workers themselves and the picture is also mixed. I’d never worked from home before the pandemic, but we have all learned about flexibility. 

All mod cons: Working from home can be very efficient and comfortable, if you have a roomy residence, garden and study

So while I am pretty much back to my five-day office week, some days I stay home to save time travelling and fit in other commitments. 

But it’s the exception rather than the norm. Among my demographic, that’s probably unusual. The park and cafes in my neighbourhood are packed with people squeezing in a break between calls. ‘I get so much more done at home,’ is the frequent refrain. 

And herein lies the problem. Working from home can be very efficient and comfortable, if you have a roomy residence, garden and study. 

The reverse is true if you don’t. And those that don’t are most likely young people starting their careers, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Well over 3,000 of our employees come from what the Social Mobility Commission classifies as a lower socio-economic background, with a greater proportion being our younger employees. 

This figure is based on the number of our people who have disclosed the occupation of their highest-earning parent when they were 14. It’s the best measure of background available, according to the commission. 

Not only is it easy to understand but it gets the highest response rate in testing. We’ve been gathering the data for a few years through staff surveys. Now the response rate has hit 80 per cent we have a good platform of data to support our work to improve social mobility. 

Yet, given 20 per cent of our people still chose not to disclose their background, and there will be new joiners since we gathered the latest data, the real number from disadvantaged backgrounds is likely to be far higher. 

That’s one of the reasons we felt it so important to open our offices as soon as we could during lockdown. Stories of people using ironing boards as desks in a flat-share were very real. 

It’s why we’re investing more in offices, while making sure people have flexibility to work from home some of the time if they prefer. But it’s not just about the set-up at home and whether people have space and quiet. The main reason young people, especially those from lower socio – economic backgrounds, are missing out is they get less opportunity to learn from others and build confidence and networks. It’s not just our assumption, but it’s what we hear from young people from disadvantaged backgrounds themselves. 

You can’t read mood and body language or someone’s expressions on a screen and pick up the subtle cues that prompt you to check someone’s OK. It’s harder to make friends, find the right moment to ask a question, meet people outside your team, and to create the friendships that last a lifetime or support personal resilience. 

It’s the people who’ve had the most disadvantaged start who stand to gain the most from the right network – and you need face-to-face interaction to build this.

Of course, nothing is straightforward, and while I know our staff want to spend more time in the office (two to three days a week is the preference among 22,000 people, so that is our policy), this is tempered by the cost of commuting and all the other expenses that come with office life. 

There will also be challenges coming into an office for other parts of our workforce, including those who feel more at risk of Covid or have a disability. We need to make sure that in trying to level the playing field we don’t distort it further. 

The only way we’ll really know is by asking our people, through surveys and conversation. From there we can build knowledge and, hopefully, trust by giving a voice to all and showing we’re listening. We need to ensure office life is part of working life and there for all.