The Coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on companies across the globe, impacting not just their profits but also how they operate. While the average number of daily new COVID-19 cases in the UK has decline considerably since the start of the year, the government’s advice continues to be that employees should work from home where possible. This is also unlikely to change until at least the 21st of June, when we enter step four of its roadmap out of lockdown, at which time all legal limits on social contact are expected to be removed and the remaining sectors of the economy reopened.
Already though there has been a push to get people back to their daily commute with Chancellor Rishi Sunak saying recently that “he’s “probably in the camp of saying that it’s good that people are in offices together,” The Prime Minister Boris Johnson took a slightly stronger stance stating “The general view is people have had quite a few days off, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office.”
This not surprising given that research commissioned by commercial landlord Landsec found that the direct economic contribution of in-person working amounts to £95bn in a typical year. This is a large sum that the government would clearly like to recoup given its expenditure keeping the UK protected and afloat.
Since the pandemic began in March last year, many companies have pivoted swiftly from office to remote working. According to a recent survey by The Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), around half of the UK labour force are currently working from home. Post-COVID, it is expected that many people will continue to do so for at least two days a week. BP is just one company who has announced they will be doing so in a bid to save costs whilst also offering their employees a “more flexible, engaging and dynamic way of working”. HSBC and Lloyds Banking Group have also unveiled similar plans and it expected that many more companies will follow suit. Interestingly the latest RICS UK Facilities Management Survey reveals that workers could return to the office after lockdown in greater numbers than was initially expected in the previous quarter.
Failing to adapt will prove costly
If companies fail to handle the return to work correctly or do not move with the times and embrace the new hybrid working paradigm, the consequences for them could be extremely damaging. For example, not only impacting staff morale, but also the hiring of future talent, who will instead look to place their labour at the disposal of a more forward-thinking company that understands the needs of the modern employee. That is why it is vital that senior management teams take decisive action and begin forecasting ahead their future work requirements if they have not done so already. This is clearly a business-critical issue as a failure to embrace the new normal and adequately second-guess their company’s needs and that of their employees will only result in an uncompetitive position and negatively impacted bottom line.
To prevent this companies must support their employees by creating the conditions in the workplace that will add value to their work whether they are operating from home or in the office.
A great place to start is by ensuring that all employees feel comfortable returning to the office in the first place. Therefore, attention must be paid to the implementation of health and safety protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It is imperative that risk assessments are taken, the findings acted upon, and employees always kept updated. This might mean investing in technological monitoring systems such as contact tracing or capacity management systems to ensure appropriate social distancing is taking place. The important thing is that employees are happy to return to work as they feel safe and protected.
The office is dead! Long live the office!
The pandemic has shaken up our concept of the workplace to include our homes as well as the office. It is crucial that employers understand how work is undertaken and completed by their employees and whether it requires them to travel to the office or instead be done at home? Given that remote working has largely proven to be a success, the question should be asked if it is really required for employees to have to travel to a set geographical location to do their job? Given that many employees feel that they have more agency working from home, perhaps the modern workplace should be used more as an event space where employees can come together to work on projects face to face as needed. Office space can instead be repurposed to ensure the formation of employee bonds, better decision making, as well as idea creation. Many leading companies such as Samsung, Yahoo and Google have already been investing in the creation of large spaces that encourage employee mingling and “cafeteria discussions” that in turn support innovative thinking and teamwork. Therefore, it would come as little surprise to see these ideas to become more prevalent in the near future.
Finally, it is imperative that any company that adopts hybrid working practices, fully embraces a “remote-first” mentality. Consequently, processes and tools must be designed to include remote employees equally and key decisions must always be discussed online so that everyone is given the opportunity to provide input, regardless of location. That means no more hallway decision making which are very destructive anyway but surprisingly common in many companies.
Companies will reap the benefits when they realise that hybrid working is the future of work and prioritise it accordingly. That means installing robust digital infrastructure to accelerate
seamless digital working and establishing secure digital accessibility to business processes. Initial expenditure may be costly in the short term but over the long term it is likely to be a cost saver. The office is far from redundant in this brave new world of work and is arguably going to be even more important for creating positive employee experiences going forward. It just means accepting a new definition of what an office is and suitably repurposing it for this task. Naturally, problems will arise with the hybrid working model that will need addressing, for example remote employee burnout, but it is only a matter of time before solutions are found through a combination of investment and experience. What is important to remember is that hybrid working is here to stay and failing to respect or invest in it will likely see employees go elsewhere to a company that does.