Rebooting places of work
By putting us into lockdown in late March, many businesses were forced to adopt 100% (or pretty close to 100%) homeworking for the first time, and on pretty short notice. And, on the whole, it has worked. The technology now commonly available meant that this was, in the end, a relatively painless process. The popular view seems to be that the uptake of technology has accelerated hugely over the last few months.
Roll the clock forward to now. Unless you’re in Leicester, lockdown is starting to ease. Non-essential retail has, to a greater or lesser extent, reopened. But, perhaps not surprisingly, the economy looks like it will continue to falter – very few economists are now predicting the sharp V-shaped recovery that was being talked about back in March. It now transpires that getting everyone out of lockdown, and people back into their traditional workplaces, and into towns and cities every day, is going to be far more of a challenge for the powers-that-be than getting people out of them as lockdown was imposed.
The casualties on the High Street are already numerous, and we can only begin to imagine where this will end up. In an ideal world, we’d see office workers heading back to the office which will start to stimulate retail activity – think of all of those coffees, lunches, drinks that used to be bought every day, and aren’t now. But that seems a way off. I was in London a week or so ago, and the usual buzz of activity that you’d normally expect to see mid-week in our capital was noticeably absent. Places were more representative of 7.30am on a Sunday than 1pm on a Thursday (absent the last of Saturday night’s partygoers).
The reasons for this slow return are numerous. There’s the fear factor – employees are somewhat reticent about leaving the security of their own homes when the virus is still out there. There’s an element of mixed or unclear messaging from government – whether we should be working from home if we can or not; should we be using public transport or not. And undoubtedly there are other factors in play too – nothing about the effects of Covid-19 are binary.
"And of course, the office-based part of UK plc is, by and large, managing to cope with its employees working from home."
Many employers recognise that offices do need to reopen in some form – real estate is expensive, and all the more so if it’s empty – but reopening isn’t as straight forward as throwing the doors open tomorrow and expecting everyone to return.
For a start, many employees have worked out that there’s no need to join the commute into the office 5 days a week, when they can work just as efficiently at home. Even those who have gallantly managed to balance home schooling and work over the last 3 months and are keen to escape the kids for a return to “normality” recognise that there’s a future in spending some time working from home and some time working in the offices.
Businesses themselves have to grapple with the ever-changing government guidance on office working during Covid-19, and then work through the lengthy and, rightly so, detailed health and safety assessments before they can get people back into the offices. The gradual shift to true flexible working has accelerated rapidly over the last few months, and many that I speak to see a new long term “normal” of a fairly even split between home and office working. Policies dealing with this need creating, employment contracts need reviewing and updating to allow for this.
And while social distancing continues to play a part in our day-to-day lives, returning to the office is never going to quite like it was before. Businesses are recognising that for every employee who is desperate to get back into the office, there will be one who has no desire to do so until the virus has gone, and there will be whole raft of opinions in between. To maintain a happy workforce, all of this needs managing.
"By far the majority recognise the importance of safe guarding employees and customers as workplaces reboot, and the consequences for their businesses of not doing so."
There are no easy answers or solutions to this. The message from government over the weekend seems to be changing, with office workers being encouraged to get back into the office, and we are apparently to be told that it’s now fine to use public transport. Trying to keep up with the changes in policy is sometimes a job in itself.
Getting people back into the workplace, in one form or another, has to be part of the restorative injection that the economy needs, particularly for retail. Doing it safely is paramount, making sure that everyone, including the business itself, is protected. And that will take time. Time that many feel as if they don’t necessarily have, but time that needs to be found.
Get in touch
For more information on this update, please contact Commercial Principal, James Geary.