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Office workers won’t grind out a full week 9 to 5 at their strip-lit desk ever again. News of three successful vaccine trials will start to unlock re-entry to open-plan workplaces, but after Covid-19 forced white collar employees to mass work from home, employers are accepting homogeneous work habits are over, and the future of office work is hybrid.
“There’s no real going back to normal, the pandemic has given us an opportunity to rethink how we work and why,” says Gerard Grech, CEO of Tech Nation, a network for entrepreneurs that has just announced a ‘work from anywhere’ (within the UK) that lasts for 12 months. Grech’s employees are being offered co-working spaces, an office-experience for people who might not be able to work from home, while assuming remote will be the new default for many.
Mass scale hybrid working – some fixed desk based, the rest anywhere else with good Wi-Fi – has never been done before, but Covid-19 has redefined the office. That’s come with positives and negatives. Like increasing numbers of employers, Tech Nation found working from home has meant “benefits from being in close proximity have been lost, like greater connection between colleagues, creativity, innovation, and training which comes with office life”, says Grech. The company has a year timeline for its work from anywhere policy “to give some stability in what will continue to be a rapidly changing situation” Grech says, but the experiment in best-of-both could become permanent.
Offices are far from over. Molzi, an Amazon marketing agency so busy it doubled its staff as e-commerce became the big lockdown winner, has just leased a bigger building in Farnham, Surrey, and apparently everyone is desperate to move in. “We always knew we wanted to return to an office, and agreed terms even prior to the positive vaccine news,” says CEO Chris Mole.
With a vaccine peeking over the horizon, Molzi will begin to encourage employees in for socially distanced meetings and collaboration “if they feel comfortable when government guidelines allow”. He expects the office to run like a WeWork-style social workplace, “where teams can organise their in-office days within their business units, and also continue to enjoy part-time remote-working”. With vaccines close offices are returning, but having one no longer means forcing everyone to work in it all the time.
Employers expect to move almost half of staff to work from home during the pandemic, the World Economic Forum (WEF) Future of Jobs Report 2020 found, a huge change from 2019 when only a third of UK employees ever worked remotely. But most business leaders told WEF they expect home-working to be negative for future productivity (despite research to the contrary). They weren’t that keen on hybrid working either, but it is emerging as a pretty good compromise to an all out return to the office that may never be possible even with a vaccine.
Employee safety remains the biggest hurdle to a full return to the office. A LinkedIn study of UK C-level executives from mid-sized companies found two-fifths expect employees will be resistant to going back when offices reopen. “With a more flexible future likely, the biggest challenge companies will have beyond safety concerns is how they can create inclusive workplaces and cultures that work for remote workers, hybrid workers, and office-only workers,” says Janine Chamberlin, senior director at LinkedIn.
How reopened offices operate in practice will in part depend on who gets the vaccine first, with current plans favouring a staggered approach where older people and those most medically vulnerable are ahead in the queue. This has the potential to be an HR nightmare.
Companies demanding more regular bums on seats will likely be led by commercial need when deciding who to bring back to the office, but others will be inclined to bring vaccinated employees back first, says Nicola Southern, employment partner at law firm Kingsley Napley. “Companies should tread carefully, some employees will not get vaccinated for religious, philosophical or health reasons, so companies could face discrimination claims”, she says.
If older employees are allowed to return over younger colleagues, “age discrimination claims could be on the cards” she says. Legally right now the UK government can’t make vaccination mandatory – and it has said it wouldn’t do so anyway – so employers who tried would be on very thin ice. “Companies could face human rights challenges as well as potential liability if employees suffer side-effects as a result of being forced to vaccinate,” says Southern, “encouragement rather than compulsion is advised”.
Food startup Flipdish, which provides restaurants with online ordering software and moved into takeaways during the pandemic, is hoping encouragement is enough. “We’ll be doing everything to ensure the office is safe even if this means social distancing well into 2021,” says Fionn Hart, UK manager, “but we will be expecting and encouraging our team to partake in vaccination – we’re all scientists at heart”.
News of the early positive vaccine trials turned Flipdish’s sights back to the office – it has been hiring 100 new employees over recent months and Hart says onboarding them remotely is “challenging for employer and employee.” The company also wants new team members to feel fully integrated and adopt its values from day one, which “will be far easier to achieve from the office” he says. As a result, Flipdish is going hybrid; employees in the office (in line with government regulations) when in-person collaboration and creativity is needed, and remote working for those who prefer it. “It’s likely the office will never be completely full again,” admits Hart.
In Europe the same realisation is emerging, even in the most traditional of companies with the greatest security concerns. Deutsche Bank AG, Germany’s largest bank, is reportedly weighing a new policy that would allow most employees to permanently work from home two days a week but be in the office for the other three.
The UK has been behind some other countries in getting people back to the office; in August analysis by Morgan Stanley found only a third of UK white collar employees were commuting again, versus European counterparts where two thirds had returned. In France 83 per cent of office staff were back over the Summer, and three quarters in Spain, Italy and Germany.
But that was before each of those countries experienced a devastating second wave of Covid cases, and subsequently reverted to lockdown and home working for all but essential workers. “The majority of our clients are preparing for a hybrid working model in the long-term, part of the week in the office and the rest from home,” Says Tim Payne, partner at international accountancy giant KPMG.
Research by KPMG found 50 per cent of financial services workers want to continue working flexibly after the pandemic, but only a quarter want to stay fully remote, Payne says. For productivity, business leaders are concerned about collaboration, innovation and long-term culture building in home-based teams, Payne says, “but also about mental wellbeing, as people are tending to work longer hours from home than they ever did in the office”.
Covid-19 has swept away decades of office workers chained to a desk, and swung the pendulum to the other extreme where white collar employees live, eat and sleep where they work. The potential vaccines offer a reversion to a healthier, hybrid middle ground. For Flipdish’s Hart the future is clear: “We’re firm believers that for progressive, forward-looking employers, the days of the typical five day 9-5 work week are over”.
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