Does Britain need to go back to the office?
Much of the UK remains a ghost town as staff continue to work from home, with many major firms already having stated they will extend flexible working hours or make roles completely remote. The advantages of this are obvious: less time spent commuting, less chance of spreading the Coronavirus, and reduced overheads as companies look towards downsizing or removing offices completely. Yet as the government is set to launch a major PR drive to get workers back to the office, some of the negatives both for workers and for the larger economy are coming to light. With schools now re-open removing the childcare hurdle which was preventing many employees returning from work, it should be the case that workers are flooding back to the office.
However, this does not seem to be the case. Businesses of all types that once relied on footfall from office workers, or that served office buildings are now in serious trouble. From cafes to cleaners, the sudden death of the office is a significant blow. The problem is particularly acute in London, where commuters have stayed away in droves, with Transport for London stating it has lost billions in ticket sales. As of last month, it was reported that a mere 31% of executives in London are back in the office, with financial centres such as Canary Wharf remaining deserted. Both NatWest and Google have advised that the majority of their workers remain out of the office until the start, or even the middle of next year.
Ghost town Britain?
The Civil Service voiced the concerns of many, stating that they will continue a working from home policy, fearing a second wave will cause a U-turn in government policy. Meanwhile the Bank of England has opined that a speedy return to “dense office environments” should not be expected. With a dearth of foreign visitors and the end of the hugely popular Eat Out to Help Out scheme, high street retailers and the hospitality trade remain in dire straits. The MP for the Cities of London and Westminster has predicted that 50,000 jobs in the West End alone could be lost. The problem is by no means unique to London, with popular tourist destination Edinburgh reporting 700,000 fewer visitors in August compared to the previous year.
The loss of both tourists and office workers has turned many city centres into ghost towns, with the head of the CBI Dame Carolyn Fairbairn cautioning that there will be a high price for local communities, jobs and businesses if the Prime Minister does not incentivise office returns. 50 of the UK’s biggest employers have stated that they have no immediate plans to return their workers to offices, with the constraints of social distancing making a safe return impossible as the most cited reason. The BBC has reported that 9 out of 10 employees who have worked from home over the furlough period would continue to do so in some form if given the option. But is this just a honeymoon period?
In defence of the office
While the office has been much maligned, a growing number have spoken out in favour of it. Another BBC report outlines some of the common concerns: a lack of a suitable working space and equipment, inadequate internet speeds, as well as a noisy environment. With partners often home working at the same time and spending much more time together than usual – relationships can fray. Not to mention that working, sleeping and relaxing all in the same room can blur the lines between work and leisure time, meaning that workers are more at risk of ‘burn out’ and feeling they live at work. It has also raised questions regarding jobs that handle sensitive and confidential data that can be overheard or stored incorrectly out of office.
As well as these negatives of working from home, some also miss the positives of the office – social interaction, and in many roles bouncing off each other’s creativity or harnessing the energy of a busy sales floor. Social isolation is increasing in a digital, atomised age – and viewing friends, family and work colleagues only through a screen may have long term impacts on our mental health, especially for those who already suffer with anxiety and other mental health conditions. Then of course there is the fact that much of business is dependent on fostering face-to-face trust and relationships when conducting deals, which may be harder to replicate via e-mail, phone or onscreen.
In conclusion, while we must be careful to avoid a new spike in cases, and there are many benefits to working from home, a phased return to the office may be what employees and the country needs. Some sectors will remain remote as part of the new normal, but for others the new normal might look quite similar to the old normal as employees once again get acquainted with the office chair.