Stephanie Cornwall looks at the mass shift to working from home and examines the perceived pros/cons of being in an office.

AROUND a third of the UK workforce’s time was spent in the office until earlier this year, when the UK went into lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, around 50% of workers have been working from home and there has been industry wide speculation about whether this could become the future normal.

So, with the advent of new technology and apps making it easier for people to work remotely, how will this impact on the commercial office market and employer/employee options?
Some business leaders have indicated that they will now shed leased office space – hinting that not everyone will go back to the office. As many as four-in-10 businesses will review their physical sites in the coming months, giving them a chance to save money on rent, according to a survey by the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo).

The APSCo survey revealed that a third will downsize and half will cancel plans to rent more space.

The combination of rent, service charge, business rates, utilities and other occupational costs often makes a business tenant’s property costs second only to its staff costs so there is likely to be an increased impetus to cut these outgoings. The Financial Times (FT) recently reported that many major UK chief executives are looking to cut property portfolios given the ease with which their companies have adapted to remote setups.

Meanwhile a home worker survey by D2E, an independent firm of consulting engineers which has offices in London, Nottingham and Manchester, revealed that 44% of respondents will be asking employers to allow them to work for at least some days of the week from home.

Goodbye to commuting
The commute is what most homeworkers currently fear about returning to an office environment. Almost two thirds 63% of those questioned in the D2E survey said they were dreading commuting on public transport.

An investigation by Totaljobs UK reveals that prior to lockdown, most UK workers spent more than a year of their lives travelling to and from work. The average UK worker will spend 400 days of their life commuting, with those commuting into London travelling for 559 days. Those surveyed said a hybrid strategy of working from home two days a week, is one ideal scenario.

Professor Jennifer Roberts, Dept. of Economics University of Sheffield, and Institute for Economic Analysis of Decision Making (InstEAD), has said this negatively affects workers’ wellbeing. “There is increasing evidence that commuting adversely affects our psychological and physical health – even after we account for the increased wages and larger home that commuting further may allow us to obtain,” she said. “The implication is that we are spending our limited and valuable time participating in an activity that is not good for our wellbeing.”

The main benefit to working remotely is that people have a better work-life balance, Chris Richmond, Head of UK Real Estate at PwC and a board member at the British Council for Offices (BCO), recently stated in an interview with the BCO. Chris said his own company’s shift to mass working from home happened almost overnight. He said it had been “an easy transition” and that staff had been able to operate effectively. “The feedback coming to us from questionnaires sent to people working from home is that they have been equally as productive, and in some cases more productive, working from home,” Chris said.

One of the concerns people formerly had about working from home was that they wouldn’t be able to stay connected, but since the enforced lockdown communication had been good and there had been no issues with people logging in remotely. He described the company’s IT department as ‘absolute heroes’ in this regard.

“Nobody is late, everything is punchy and the video calls are always productive – normally because it has got a specified time to run,” he said. “You then feel that you still have a lot of productive time ahead of you, and the reason people feel that is because they have not had to have that commute.”

Commercial build future
So does this mean a drastic change in the number of office builds and fit-outs required going forward? Chief Executive of the BCO, Richard Kauntze, thinks not.

While acknowledging that lockdown has prompted a lot of speculation and things will undoubtedly change in the future, Richard has said it is evident that the offi ce will still have a firm place for future business.

“Mixed working will probably become more popular and some of the stigma around working from home will fade away, with people working from home more than they used to,” he said. “However, the office will remain our most popular place of work. Rumours of its demise are much exaggerated.”

Research commissioned by the BCO, which is the representative body for the UK’s office sector, reveals that only 20% of UK adults plan primarily to work from home in the future, while 16% hope the office is replaced by working from home. The survey, which polled 2,000 adults nationwide, found that 38% do not plan to work from home at all, and 27% plan to work from home for less than half of the working week, or on an ad hoc basis.

Of those questioned in the survey, 34% miss socialising with colleagues, 35% miss getting out of the house or being in the centre of town and 25% miss having a physical distinction between work and leisure.

Dave Cook, who researches societies/cultures and their development at University College London, described the Covid-19 lockdown as “the biggest remote work experiment in history” in a recent online blog. “The paradox of remote working is that people crave the flexibility but know that being around others boosts productivity,”

Dave states in his blog. “My research shows that over time remote workers crave the physical closeness that comes with just being alongside other people.” Dave is amongst those who believe that co-working venues will play a bigger role following Covid-19 lockdown release. Before the outbreak hit, co-working spaces were projected to increase more than 40% worldwide.

Dave said those currently having to work from ill-equipped, cramped living spaces are desperate for alternatives and will turn to cafes and co-working spaces that are still in business after lockdown. Ongoing surveys within the public and private sectors suggest that, while many employers and employees will want to reassess how they work, the office still has a place in the future of UK industry – but in a much different capacity.