The rise of flexible working
The dramatic and sudden shift to home working that was forced upon many office workers at the start of the pandemic may have changed the nature of working irrevocably. While notions of 'flexible working' have been trailed and debated for decades by human resource directors, academics and union officials, it has taken the widespread 'real life' experiences of the last twelve months to bring it to universal prominence. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that when the first lockdown was called last March, almost half of all those in employment were forced to do some of their job function from home. For many, this would have been a new experience and a fast learning curve into the world of flexible working.
With the Government encouraging more of us to go back into the office over the coming months, the big question is whether workers and organisations will want to return to 'traditional' working based around commuting and a 9-to-5 office environment. And it is office working that is the focus with service industries contributing around 80% of the country's GDP. The Prime Minister for one, is confident that 'normal' office working will resume:
In a few short months, if all goes to plan ... 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. (Boris Johnson, April 2021)
While some organisations have already indicated they will be keen to get their staff back into the office, a number of employment-related surveys over the last twelve months seem to point to an alternative view. Many employers and employees have been quietly surprised at how productive they have been despite the restrictions, lockdowns and getting to grips with having to do business virtually. For example, the digital-only banking app Revolut, the UK's fastest growing tech company, is planning to let employees choose when and how often they want to work from home. It found that 90 per cent of its team leaders said performance was unaffected by working from home, but that 65 per cent of staff wanted to have the freedom to come into the office when they wanted.
In a new poll of 1,700 adults conducted by YouGov and Deloitte (April 2021), more than half said they want to continue home working either full or part-time after the pandemic, with one in five saying they want to work from home full-time in the future. More importantly, nearly three-quarters of those currently working from home thought it likely that their company would follow Revolut's apprach and let them continue. This latter point is critical because at present in the UK there is no legal right to work from home, only the right of employees to request it and for employers "to deal with requests in a reasonable manner". Therefore, when all Covid-restrictions are lifted it will largely be up to an employer to decide whether their employees can continue working from home. But the pandemic has clearly shown the potential benefits for many employers, not least the prospect of significant savings on office space.
Many offices are feeling very expensive at the moment ... businesses simply aren't getting the same commercial and economic benefit from their offices as they did before the pandemic. (Robert Hayton, head of UK tax at real estate firm Altus Group)
Sir Cary Cooper, president of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), has spent years researching the efficacy of different work patterns. His view is that: "the evidence pre-Covid was that people wanted to work more flexibly and work partly at home, partly from a central office. The findings show it enhances job satisfaction, there is a higher productivity and less sickness and absence. But what most people didn't want is what we've been doing in the pandemic: remote work 100 per cent of the time." Prior to the pandemic Cooper's research found that many employers were resistant to home working because of a psychological barrier in trusting some of their workers not to slack. Cooper predicts that when restrictions lift, many people will want to go into the office at first, but once they've reconnected with their teams they will switch to going into an office a couple of days a week.
The findings from Cooper's research resonate with another recent survey conducted by Survation (March 2021) of more than 1,000 working adults. It revealed that 55 per cent of those questioned believed they would take up a hybrid model of working going forward, splitting their time between home and the office. The willingness for more companies to opt for a hybrid approach shows how many of us have become relatively comfortable with the idea of home working and using modern technology to give more flexiblity to organise other parts of busy lives, such as family. In an interview marking his first year as the Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey also thought it was unlikely that office working would return to normal: "I think there will be for many people more of a hybrid model of working at home and working in a place of work. I would be very surprised if we went back to exactly as we were before Covid".
Earlier this month Ian Stewart the chief economist at Deloitte, told a select committee of MPs a poll of 800 clients showed directors were planning on staff returning at least two days a week once restrictions were eased: "I think there is going to be step change. There has been a long-term move towards greater flexible, agile home working. This is going to cause a significant acceleration of it. Very few people want to work entirely at home or entirely in the office," he said.
Some major companies have already publicly indicated their preference for a hybrid-model of working post pandemic by committing to downsizing their office space. This month BP told its 25,000 staff around the world they would be working from home for two days a week, and last year HSBC said it was going to use the shift in working patterns to cut its office space by 40 per cent, while the Lloyds Banking Group are planning to downsize their office space by a fifth over the next 2 years. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) which represents the UK's largest employers, estimate that their members were looking at requiring just 70 per cent of their normal office capacity in the aftermath of the pandemic.
However, not all busienss leaders are convinced of the longer-term benefits of home working. Perhaps the most high-profile of these traditionally minded bosses is the Goldman Sachs chief executive David Solomon, when he rejected the prospect of remote working being the "new normal". Even some proponents of remote working during the pandemic, such as Google, are worried that hybrid and remote working could harm their "corporate culture". Others believe their staff are missing office and city-centre life, and that the "novelty" of home working has waned. Going forward, these contrary views may become a crucial factor for prospective candidates when choosing a company to work for.
The changing geography of work
One of the fears surrounding an accelerated trend toward greater home working is the potential impact it could have on city centres becoming hollowed-out and empty. But this seems too fatalistic a view. Firstly, the early indication is that employers will downsize rather than abandon their office capacity. That leaves "new space" which can potentially be offered to smaller enterprises or fast-growing sectors, reconfigured into shared office hubs, or converted for other uses such as residential and leisure. Cities have always changed and adapted over the centuries to reflect the wider socio-economic and cultural forces exerted upon them.
In an editorial piece written by Emma Duncan of The Economist (Times, 17.4.21) 'Cities of the future will belong to the young' she picks up on this theme by suggesting that major conurbations, such as London, could see a demographic shift as more middle-aged professionals choose to take up the option of home working away from city centres, leading to the prospect of more affordable central districts for key and younger workers to live and work.
I don't have the hunger for the hurly-burly of office life that my younger daughters do. Working at home suits me just fine. So now that I've discovered I can earn my living without getting on the Tube I am, along with half of the middle-aged people in London thinking about moving out. While my daughters noses are pointed firmly at the centre of the city. (Emma Duncan, April 2021)
Another potential geographical impact is the emergence of an office 'hub and spoke' model with a growing demand for suburban offices. Newly published data from serviced office giant IWG suggests that some employers are choosing this model in the post-Covid era, allowing staff to work closer to their homes some days of the week rather than always having to commute into the centre. In the case of London this has meant the biggest rise in demand in locations such as Ealing and Chiswick, followed by Barking, Harrow and Uxbridge, with a corresponding fall in demand for more central locations, such as Marylebone, Victoria and Fitzrovia. The changing trend was summarised by Mark Dixon, CE of IWG: "Many businesses are embracing hybrid working, allowing staff to work either from home or closer to home at least some of the week. This allows employees to work flexible and in a way which suits their lifestyle."
The implications of the pandemic on the longer-term working patterns of thousands of office workers would appear profound. Whenever and however a return to the office happens, the days of full weeks spent in the office may become a distant memory for many of us. Most employees surveyed over the last year, particularly 0lder workers and those with families, have consistently indicated their willingness to continue with home working in some form. Many of the potential benefits of hybrid or blended work patterns that previously emerged from academic studies have been borne out by the 'lived experiences' of many employees and their companies. Being able to generate equally productive outputs from a motivated and satisfied workforce, while at the same time saving on expensive office space may yet be the pandemic's silver lining for many. The move to hybrid work patterns could also revitalise many of our city centres and suburbs as they adapt. Rather than centralised "ghost towns", we may yet see central districts transformed into more affordale and thriving centres populated by an increasing proportion of key and younger workers.
This blog was written by Robert Rayner (MA Marketing), founder of The Market Research Service and formerly of Wedding ConneXions and Accord Marketing & Research.