The Future of Office Work

05 March 2021

Employees’ reluctant to return to full-time commuting

Boris Speaks

Commuters will return to offices “in a few short months”, Boris Johnson has predicted, dismissing the idea that lockdowns will lead to a permanent shift towards working from home. The prime minister is confident workers would return to traditional work patterns when lockdown restrictions were eased.

“In a few short months, if all goes to plan, we in the UK are going to be reopening our economy. And then, believe me, the British people will be consumed once again with their desire for the genuine face-to-face meeting that makes all the difference to the deal or whatever it is.”

The Reality

Despite the Prime Ministers confidence, the reality may be far more nuanced. 

Firstly we must rember a large portion of the workforce are not office workers and have had to continue working at a variety of locations despite Covid.

Secondly comments from remote workers include:  

  • “not missing the 5.30am alarms or spending three nights a week away from her husband and son.”
  • “Ideal scenario would be to meet her team of six just once a month in the office”
  • “Been really impressed with how productive we can be without being together in a building”
  • “Why would to return, with everything that we’ve proved over the past year in terms of how we’re able to conduct our business, and do it much quicker?”

Many analysts believe a shift to remote working was already under way, with coronavirus accelerating it by around a decade. Seven in 10 UK employees who have been working remotely during Covid-19 told a survey by Boston Consulting Group surveyed employees working remotely at home and 70% felt as productive at home as in the workplace. More than half (53%) of workers said they would prefer a hybrid model in future, splitting their time equally between their desk and a remote location.

Major corporates comment

Banking group HSBC is taking advantage of the booming popularity of home working by cutting its global office space by 40%.  It is committed to its headquarters in the Canary Wharf financial district, but may not renew leases for other sites in the capital.

Lloyds  announced that it would cut its desk numbers by 20% over the next two years, following staff requests for home working to be made permanent.

However Goldman Sachs calls the trend an aberration. CEO David Solomon said remote working does not represent “a new normal” because firms like Goldman Sachs required face-to-face contact to foster innovation and collaboration, and to train and guide the next generation.

Most firms are expected to embrace a hybrid model, which will be more difficult to implement and manage than having the entire workforce either at home or in the office. Nick South, expert on the future of work at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) comments  “It’s going to be very difficult if we have a complete free-for-all. You have to think about people’s families and needs, people’s preferences, the practicalities, the guardrails you want to provide. There is quite a co-ordination job needed to make this work, and that’s before you think what tech do we need where, and how we will redesign our space.”

Even Silicon Valley companies are looking at “hybrid” models. Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is developing a model where staff work three days in the office for “collaboration” and two days from home. “No company at our scale has ever created a fully hybrid workforce model,” Pichai said in an email to staff in December. “It will be interesting to try.”

Influence of Younger Staff

It may be younger members of staff, including millennials, who demand flexibility from their employers, which will be a challenge as a business has to make itself attractive, this will be a challenge for organisations that are not fans agile/hybrid working. 

UK office workers have adopted remote working more readily than their European counterparts, according to several surveys from US bank Morgan Stanley’s Alphawise research unit. British employees also intend to request more days at home in future than those in France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

It is not entirely clear why this should be, though the length of the average commute in the UK, especially in south-east England, could be a deciding factor, as well as the hours worked in the UK, which has a longer average working week than most European countries.

Change coming

The shift in the world of work will have lasting consequences, not just for organisations and their staff, but also for our city centres and the service businesses – including sandwich shops, coffee stands and dry cleaners – which before Covid relied on steady footfall from office workers.

There is confidence that many organisations will keep headquarters, maybe reduced in scale.  The smaller supporting businesses may have to adapt rapidly to support the areas away from the centre of cities where people are basing themselves on other working days.

An opportunity for Guildford.

Could this mean a opportunity for Guildford with a requirement for small office space, food outlets and tech support hubs?  Enabled by a better transport system covering Walking to Cars?

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