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Most office workers will never return full-time?

With coronavirus rules lifted, the UK is gradually if nervously going back to the office. The London Underground reports traffic levels at about half their pre-pandemic levels, but across Britain rush hour traffic is some 90% of its former level. Many working from home are now being consulted by their organisations on their attitudes towards future working patterns. Many of us would quite like to know what everyone else is doing and to find out the BBC commissioned YouGov to survey what people think about this time of major change in the workplace.

With coronavirus rules lifted, the UK is gradually if nervously going back to the office. The London Underground reports traffic levels at about half their pre-pandemic levels, but across Britain rush hour traffic is some 90% of its former level. Many working from home are now being consulted by their organisations on their attitudes towards future working patterns. Many of us would quite like to know what everyone else is doing and to find out the BBC commissioned YouGov to survey what people think about this time of major change in the workplace.

Some 70% of those surveyed predicted workers would "never return to offices at the same rate" and most workers surveyed said they would prefer to work from home either full-time or at least some of the time. However, there are concerns from some key stakeholders about the trend to this ‘new normal’ - half of senior leaders also surveyed said workers staying at home would adversely affect both creativity and collaboration – although only 38% of ordinary members of the public thought this was an issue.

At one end of the spectrum, bosses at large US investment banks like Goldman Sachs and technology giant Apple want everyone back in the office as an essential part of their work culture. One business leader even calls working from home an ‘aberration’ but they seem to be outliers. Most managers and members of the public surveyed agree neither productivity nor the economy would be harmed by continuing work-from-home policies and over 75% of people surveyed believe their boss will allow them to continue some level of home working.

Many of those surveyed felt the pandemic had ‘recalibrated’ the workplace. Many said the benefits included saving time and money on travel, on coffee shops and sandwich bars with major benefits for their health and carbon footprint. Half of the workers surveyed thought women's careers might actually be boosted by home-working, with shared childcare duties being more manageable.

The main concern was for newer, younger staff who were missing out on office culture. Hybrid working favours experienced workers who already have close contacts with colleagues and clients and like the better work-life balance, but they also worry about those new to their organisation. More than 60% of those surveyed thought young people would struggle to progress without face-to-face contact or in-person mentoring. They see school leaver apprentices online who have never been on-site and have often never met a fellow colleague face-to-face. Almost all think younger staff starting out in working life need workplace experience, the structure of working and all the little day to day office interactions that build a culture - the way we do things around here.

The BBC YouGov findings closely reflect opinions Parliament Hill has been gathering from its clients during a recent series of interviews to take the pulse of the sector. This smaller but very varied sample of organisations reveals a wide range of responses to the pandemic. Many reported a consultation process about the future of home working was in progress, some informal, some as a full staff survey – many said it was a delicate issue reflecting both individual needs and the needs of the business.

Parliament Hill’s clients reveal a wide spectrum of experience in the pandemic. This ranges from key workers or direct customer-facing roles where members are out on the frontline. At the other end of the scale, some members were furloughed, or worse, had no paid work or lost their jobs altogether. Many mentioned how their organisations had made supporting the health and wellbeing of members a top priority. For the client organisations themselves, home working was the norm across all sectors (several mentioned how difficult it was where their members were out there in the workplace when they were working from the comfort of home). Most clients reported very rapid adjustment at lockdown, some even moving office furniture and equipment. A few updated their systems, but most found their existing information and communication technology worked without much change to enable strong and efficient team working, access to data and communications in working from home where most felt they were as productive if not more so.

Clients reported a broad range of office and home working for the future. Some have already gone back to the office full time, many saying how working from home was difficult with too many distractions, a lack of space, and disturbances from the family. Some clients own their own offices and want to use them again as fully as they can, but often they are actively exploring using less space with new working patterns and hiring out unused floors to tenants. In contrast, other clients have given up the lease on their offices and have yet to decide how to resume: some may simply opt to work from home full time and hire space flexibly from serviced office providers like Regus and WeWork for important internal and customer face-to-face meetings.

Some say they are going back one day a week, only holding big meetings face to face at agreed times each month, but the majority say they will head back to the office on a 2-3 day a week pattern. Many said this reflected the upside of home working – many times we heard ‘more efficient’, ‘more productive’, ‘can juggle life better’ and ‘even saving money’. Those with long commutes especially to London are the most likely to opt for some form of home working in future.

Most missed human contact and almost everyone we spoke to mentioned how new joiners were adversely affected – several said how weird it was that new staff had been recruited and begun work but had yet to meet any of their colleagues. Several saw younger people as very adaptive, good at handling the technology, had online consumer habits and were comfortable connecting with others on social media. But very many mentioned the water cooler moments, the random conversations, the critical incidents, the creative moments, the vital body language, observations and interactions, the day-to-day informal coaching and mentoring that goes on in the office.

Much as the BBC YouGov survey has shown, there is a broad consensus amongst Parliament Hill clients, even amongst those who have actually gone back, that most office workers will never go back to the office full time. Home working is definitely here to stay

Author: Dr Mark Pegg, Director, Chalfont Associates

Foot note for this article
BBC/YouGov surveyed 1,684 working adults and 530 senior leaders in business about their predictions and opinions on working from home. YouGov also re-ran a survey of 4,041 British adults, first held in March 2021, about their current working from home situation.

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