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  • Rhona Jamieson

The End of the Full-Time Office-Based Job

For several months we have lived by the mantra of ‘Stay Home, Save Lives’ and our working habits have changed completely. The once bustling streets of London and other city centres have been almost deserted as millions of workers have converted dining tables and corners of their living rooms into home offices. We have got used to video conferencing and balancing work tasks with childcare.

A fortnight ago, the Prime Minister changed his message and urged people to go back to work if they could in a bid to try and restart the economy. Boris Johnson declared that it was time for people to try and live their lives more normally and that offices in England should reopen from 1st of August. But will we notice a return to the old way of work next week or will we instead merge into a permanent ‘new normal’ as it is being described?

Certainly, the threat of the global Coronavirus pandemic has not gone away, with second waves already beginning or threatening in other countries. There is still an anxiety about going back to ‘the way things were’. Scottish offices are being told to remain closed until September and workers in Wales and Northern Ireland are still being advised to work from home where they can.

Organisations appear to be listening to their employees’ fears with many, including KPMG, Vodafone and RBS, saying their staff are unlikely to be asked to return to the office until next year. Google told its employees this week that they could stay at home until July 2021 if they didn’t need to be in the office, while Fujitsu and Twitter have launched permanent work-from-home strategies. Research from recruitment firm Hays suggests that 55% of firms will still be offering flexible working in six months’ time.

It seems a shift in how we work may become more permanent. People are now, more than ever before, looking for a better work-life balance and to reduce the amount of time they’re commuting. The Hays research suggests over half of workers want to split their worktime between meeting with colleagues in their city-centre office and doing more focused work at home, at a local hub or in a co-working space nearer where they live.

Many firms have already changed their thinking on remote working after lockdown proved that the previous technological and productivity concerns could be managed. In many situations, employees have been given grants to buy office furniture for their homes as firms recognised their staff would not be back in the office for a while. Now these organisations will need to make longer term decisions about their physical office space.

For many companies and employees, the office will no longer be the place for full-time work. Individual tasks may be done remotely with teams only coming together for collaborative work. With less people coming into the office every day, then many organisations may choose to reduce their floor space and relocate to smaller buildings. Shopify has announced that its offices will remain closed for the rest of the year while they are adapted for this new reality and that the company would be a ‘digital by default’ company going forward. We are likely to start seeing a shift towards an office design with more meeting and breakout spaces rather than rows of desks. Offices may need to open earlier in the morning and remain operational later into the evening as workers stagger their hours to help with social distancing.

While these changes may let companies reduce office costs and help improve employee wellbeing, there is likely to be a knock-on effect with other industries that once relied on the army of office workers flocking to financial districts. City centre businesses like sandwich shops, dry-cleaners and convenience stores will inevitably face financial hardship, especially as the government’s furlough schemes are now being phased out. The UK’s largest bus and rail franchise company FirstGroup has already warned it is concerned about its future due to the drop in passenger numbers as fewer people use public transport.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that COVID-19 is not a short-term concern and will be around for some time to come. What is less easy to ascertain is how the general population will react to that. Many people still do not feel safe leaving their homes, while for others the isolation has been detrimental to their mental health and they are desperate to return to how things were.

Businesses are understandably worried about the economy, but employee wellbeing and community health are still very important considerations for many in planning for the future. Large firms are also keen to reduce their carbon footprint and reducing the amount their employees travel is a significant way to do this.

Whatever happens over the coming months, the office will always be a key centre for learning and personal connections and has to be maintained in some form. Workers need to have a corporate home to feel connected to their organisation. However, the number of workers voting with their feet and deciding to stay at home next week, even as offices across England reopen, may well determine what the long-term working future will look like. Office life will be different, perhaps for a long time, maybe even forever.

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