Return to the office in the UK has lagged well behind the rest of Europe
In August despite a surge in COVID infections the UK government started a campaign to persuade workers to return to the office. Outside of lockdowns, return to offices has been very slow in the UK with around two thirds of workers opting to remain working remotely as opposed to 17% in France and 25% in Spain, Italy and Germany. In part this is due to the heavily service based nature of UK business and may also be attributable to the lamentable performance of the UK government in failing to convince the general population that it is on top of the fight against the virus.
Employers are taking differing bets on the future of the office
Facebook seems to be expecting a return to the old normal of office based work having just taken a lease on a huge new office in Manhattan while other employers are moving in a different direction with Twitter stating employees can work remotely indefinitely and American Express, Google, Uber and Airbnb telling their office based staff they can do so until at least June 2021. Airbnb even offer remote employees the incentive of $500 to spend on setting up a home office and $500 to spend on Airbnb stays. In the UK, if anything the trend to remote working is accelerating with the Office for National Statistics declaring that 49% of UK employees worked from home in mid June 2020, up from 41% for the week before.
Re-opening offices is not simple and carries a threat of legal action if not done well
For employers re-opening offices, meeting health and safety requirements and new government legislation for track and trace is likely to be arduous and an employer encouraging or forcing a large-scale return to work could be taking legal risks. Would they be open to legal action if such a measure could be linked to the infection and death of an employee? If they make a return to the office optional, will they spend a lot of time and money preparing offices and health and safety systems only to find employees reluctant to return?
Why are people happy to eat out and go shopping but reluctant to return to offices?
Meanwhile with restaurants, schools, libraries, shops and hairdressers all open and doing good business, why were employees happy to go out to eat and shop but were resistant to return to offices? One major feature of the current situation is a loss of control. This may explain why there has been an upsurge in infections in the young who after 6 months of having their lives controlled by the virus, government policies and their parents may simply have had enough, thrown off the shackles and cast caution to the wind. Middle and later age employees are unlikely to be so cavalier with families to support and vulnerable parents to consider.
Shopping and eating out are optional activities and generally reached by walking or driving. If you feel unsafe then just forget it come home and don’t worry. Going into a city to work feels like a much greater level of risk and loss of control. How crowded will the station be? Will everyone be as committed to social distancing as you are? How busy will the public transport be? Even if the commuter train isn’t overly crowded then it’s highly unlikely to have windows that open for fresh air, rather it will have air conditioning which recirculates the air that your fellow travellers are breathing out. I’ve heard the spread of this virus compared to being in proximity to a cigarette smoker. Sit outside or in a well-ventilated area then you’ll get a whiff of their smoke, sit in a closed room and you’ll eventually breathe lots of their smoke in. One hour on a commuter train and the chances are you’ve breathed in a lot of other people’s exhalations.
Most public transport and offices have frequent touch points and air conditioning that recirculates everyone’s exhalations
Public transport is full of frequent touch points – touch screen ticket machines, carriage door opening buttons, arm rests, roof hangers and tables. As if that wasn’t enough once you get to your office, you’re faced again with a lack of opening windows and recirculated air through office air conditioning systems. A brand new tower block at 22 Bishopsgate in London has switched off their air conditioning for this reason, but clearly that’s not going to be an option for all offices. What about elevators? I know someone who works for a bank in a new skyscraper in London. Their main complaint pre COVID was the queues at the lifts at peak arrival and go-home times. How will an office like that cope and who wants to be in a lift in a pandemic, mask or not!! Remote work has many attractions. Losing the commute, greater flexibility, child care positives, a general feeling of greater control and ability to get more work done are often quoted by home workers, but even if we put these to one side, the uncertainties inherent in work in cities is going to keep the return to offices low for a good time yet.
Remote working will be one of the long-term legacies of this pandemic. Employers and employees have proved it can work and it has so many advantages for both that it’s not going to fade away once a vaccination is approved. A mass return to the office at the end of the pandemic seems increasingly unlikely.
Enterprises need to re-organise to optimise the gains from remote work
However, to reap all of the potential gains of remote work, it is vital that companies do this right, re-organise for home working and not just continue the same office-based processes but remotely. Communication strategies need to be worked on, employees looked after and helped to overcome negatives like loneliness and anxiety and attention paid to their home office working environment. Staff at all levels need to be trained to support the ‘new normal’ and strategies worked out to help people who are unable or unwilling to adapt to this way of work.
Gren Gale is an author and consultant.