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Forget Putin – WFH is fast becoming an emblem for the cost of living crisis in the UK

Despite the EU’s claims we can fight Putin by staying at home, spiralling costs are pushing more people away from the office

A man and his child on a desk at their house as he tries to work from home

Europeans are being asked to work from home and reduce the amount of oil and gas they consume in a bid to thwart Vladimir Putin and his country’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine. That’s according to a nine-point plan outlined by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the European Commission.  

If successfully followed, the steps could help to save enough oil to fill 120 supertankers and enough gas to heat almost 20 million homes. There’s also a minor footnote suggesting the move might be better for the environment, but that’s really just an afterthought here. 

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“Faced with the horrendous scenes of human suffering that we’ve seen following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, people in Europe want to take action,” says Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA. “This guide has easy-to-follow steps that with little or no discomfort on our part can reduce the flow of money to Russia’s military and help put us on a path to a cleaner and more sustainable planet.”

This has very big ‘dig for victory’ energy, as one of my colleagues pointed out. In reality, though, it highlights the latest evolution of remote work, which was previously something of a luxury in pre-pandemic times. It was once reserved for top bosses, or niche job roles, but then, seemingly overnight, it became a solution to stop the spread of COVID-19. Over the last year or so, too, it’s been a major requirement for job applicants and a lure for businesses to attract talented individuals. Now, though, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exasperates oil and gas supplies, and the general cost of living reaches a crisis point, working from home has started to look and feel more like a sign of poverty. 

In the UK, specifically, many people can’t actually afford the commute to the office anymore. According research from recruitment firm Ransted, this is being acutely felt outside of the London bubble, where transport links are either limited or too expensive. The company’s survey of almost 3,000 British workers found that 9 out of 10 have pushed their employer for more time working from home simply because it's too expensive to drive in or use public transport. You may not have seen the work the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, is doing, fighting for more affordable transport. He recently posted examples of travel from the North (on a train) that’s more costly than some international flights

I myself used to do four days a week in the office before the pandemic, but looking at my finances now I don’t know how I would be able to do that again – and I’ve had three wage increases since then. This isn’t simply a case of my employer paying me more, either. Nor is it a case of cutting back on non-essentials. Nobody is going to live a healthy lifestyle eating just economy brand pasta, nor can they save all that much by dropping Netflix, as certain public figures like to assume. Funnily enough, Netflix recently lost 200,000 subscribers, which can be put down to greater competition in the streaming market, but we also can’t rule out the possibility that some just can’t afford it anymore.

In the absence of a competent government, or sensible structures of pay at gas companies, the future looks pretty grim for working-class Britain. One of the major concerns during the pandemic was a looming mental health crisis for all those of us that were stuck at home from nine to five and beyond. That might need to be updated to include poverty-induced anxiety with full-time workers weighing up the cost of food, heating and travel to the office. 

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