According to a recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey, 51% of the workforce was working remotely instead of at their normal place of work. In some industries, this number is even higher, such as in professional services, where 79% of staff are working remotely. Whereas, in other industries fewer than half of workers were doing so, such as in distribution (49%) and manufacturing (30%). In addition, the prevalence of remote working varies by region, from 57% in London to 35% in the West Midlands.
Following the Prime Minister’s announcements in July, many firms have told the CBI that they have not changed their approach to returning to the office, with most operating their offices either at less than 20% capacity, or still considering their plans in consultation with employees. Many businesses are finding that working from home has been a success for them with no negative impact on productivity, but they are also aware that many of their employees are keen to return to the office for a variety of reasons.
Businesses seem to be taking a cautious approach to returning to their offices:
- Health concerns are key – firms want to ensure they are putting the health of their people and the wider public first, particularly with concerns about a second wave
- Using public transport and managing childcare responsibilities are the top concerns for employers and employees alike
- Childcare is a big issue – with some ongoing concerns about future provision including wraparound care
- Following social distancing rules in the workplace is, in most cases, only possible by taking a measured and staggered approach. How to manage pinch points within offices (e.g. canteens and toilets) is a top concern for employers
- Where firms have been eager to return staff to offices, concerns around isolation and employees’ mental health are prevalent.
Some solutions businesses are considering
- Many businesses have planned to reopen their offices from September onwards, to coincide with schools reopening
- Some are looking at using blended working in offices – such as A/B teams and increased flexibility around working hours
- Others are also implementing long-term remote policies – such as Google announcing they would let employees work from home until at least July 2021.
The impact of social distancing
The CBI’s July Growth Indicator included questions on firms’ plans for office space and future working, and the impact of social distancing, and found that a social distance of two metres would reduce the operating capacity of businesses by over 25% on average, while one metre would reduce it by 15%. As a result, businesses need to consider how social distancing impacts their operations.
The future of office space
The results also showed that 37% of companies are conducting or planning to conduct conversations with landlords/managing agents to review their office space requirements going forward. This number is highest in banking, where 88% of firms reported a review of office space, and lowest in the manufacturing sector, with 18% undertaking reviews. Considering both social distancing and remote working, 47% of companies believe that they needed no more than 70% of their current office space.
The impact of working from home on productivity
It’s too early to tell exactly what impact working from home during the pandemic has had on productivity. There may be long-term benefits to the success of this change, such as employees being able to better balance personal and work commitments.
There have been several informal studies within the business community that suggest an increase in productivity among remote workers, but these studies show that with most schools and childcare providers closed, the effects are not equally distributed between genders. As schools reopen, hopefully this negative aspect will dissipate.
In our daily coronavirus webinar from 29 July, Andy Cox, Chair of Energy & Natural Resources at KPMG spoke about their return to the office. Andy explained that KPMG has put in place a three-phase plan for the return to the office. The first phase began earlier in July. “Business critical” employees could return to the office, but the office could only be filled up to 5% of normal capacity at any one time. Phase two is set to start early in August. From then, up to 20% of the workforce will be allowed to return to the office on a voluntary basis. The decision on when to commence phase three (allowing up to 50% of people back to the office) will depend on the government’s advice and the rate of infection in a few months' time.
Additionally, PwC staff have been encouraged to return to work on a voluntary basis. Kevin Ellis, chair of accountancy firm PwC, told City AM he hopes to have around half of the company’s employees back at work by September. Covid-19 has “bashed away presenteeism for ever”, Ellis said, adding that PwC would look to slash office attendance from five days a week to three or four days a week as a result of the pandemic. Ellis said employees were keen to return to work after months of lockdown to get out the house and support local businesses.
We want to hear your views
Have you made any plans to return to the office? Are you reviewing your office space? Please get in touch to share your views.