13 Jul 2020

I have been reflecting over the weekend on the UK Prime Minister’s comments that it is “very important” that people think about going back to work now and that the stay at home message has outlived its usefulness.

I have checked this morning and the official Government guidance has not changed – businesses must make every reasonable effort to enable working from home as a first option. A confusing picture perhaps, but in reality most employers will already be thinking about their long-term strategy in relation to home-workers.

It seems to me that any plans to return to the office will be guided by three drivers:

  1. Safety (first and foremost): Most employers are reconfiguring workplaces to make them COVID-19 secure. A risk assessment may also need to take into account how employees get to work and access the building – with concerns about crowded trains and long queues outside the office. There are also complications in shared workspaces or multi-occupancy buildings (think about the communal areas and lift capacity in high rise office towers, for example). It may not be possible to have everyone back in the office (or at least not at the same time), even if they want to.
  2. Operational effectiveness: Some businesses may already be gently encouraging employees to come back into the office – or at least giving them the option to do so. Many clients in the innovation sector rely on people being together at the workplace to exchange ideas and spark the creativity that makes great things happen. It may be possible to have large parts of the workforce working from home, but not optimal to do so. Equally, it is clear that working from home can allow people to do some types of work more efficiently and on their own terms.
  3. Culture: In recent months, businesses have been compelled to embrace different ways of working. As we start to emerge from lockdown, they have had a glimpse into what the future might look like, partly through an enforced, widescale working from home experiment. Organisational values have been stress-tested as never before. Now there is an opportunity to preserve the best of pre-lockdown workplace culture and augment it with the more collaborative, caring approach that home-working appears to have fostered. We have seen some great examples of employees taking responsibility for looking after each other, managers adapting how they interact with their team and extra effort being made to put a virtual arm round those who are struggling. There is also a recognition that the lack of in-person contact and “Zoom fatigue” is unhealthy and particularly difficult for those who are new to the business, new to their chosen careers or who thrive off the social hub that the office gives them.

If I were a betting man (and I am not!), I would say that many businesses will end up with a “hybrid” model, with staff splitting their time between home and office-working – and encouraging their employees to prioritise different types of task in each environment. Time in the office can be spent interacting with colleagues – and the workspace can be designed to facilitate that. Time at home can be spent on desk-based activities. There will be some trial and error along the way, as different organisations (and teams within them) find a balance that works best for them. Let’s hope that it signals the end of banks of workers coming into the office each day, sitting in front of their screens and plugging in their headphones.

Thinking more long-term, I am hopeful that a refreshed approach to hybrid or home-working will also provide opportunities for employers to adapt their recruitment strategy. It seems slightly odd to be talking about recruitment, in the context of reports of significant job cuts in some of the hardest-hit sectors. Certainly, the lockdown has been extremely challenging for businesses of all sizes and across sectors. There have been (and will likely continue to be) some casualties in these straitened times, resulting in redundancies and restructurings.

However, whether the economic recovery is “V”, “U” or “W” shaped, there will come a time when businesses can look to start hiring and growing again. For some, that may happen quite soon. And when it does, it seems that geography may be less of a barrier if employees are not required to be physically present all of the time (or at all). It opens up a broader talent pool of people from a wider radius than those within reasonable commuting distance from the office (whether that is elsewhere in the UK, or overseas). That’s a good thing – for business, for social mobility in the UK, for tapping into the global job market.

In the meantime, I will watch with interest to see how the Government’s guidance might evolve in the coming days. The signs are there that it considers the “stay at home” message has outlived its usefulness, but it seems likely that the ultimate decision will rest with individual employers as to whether (and how fast) to re-open the office.