No full-time return to the office for over a million British workers

Working from home

Almost all of 50 of the UK’s biggest employers have said they do not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time.

Some 43 of the firms said they would embrace a mix of home and office working, with staff encouraged to work from home two to three days a week.

Four firms said they were keeping the idea of hybrid working, working from home some of the time, under review.

Currently, people who can work from home are still advised to do so.

However, that is likely to change in June when the government hopes to end all social distancing restrictions.

“We’re never going to go back to working the way we used to work,” said Mark Read, chief executive of advertising firm WPP.

But the new ways of using the office require careful planning, he told Business Matters.

“People are working from home three to four days a week so we probably need 20% less space, but we’re not going to do that if everyone’s working from home on Mondays and Fridays.”

Other companies cite “smart working” and “flexibility” as reasons for introducing hybrid working, with many suggesting that workers would be able to make their own choices about how often they come into the office.

Danny Harmer, chief people officer at insurance giant Aviva – which has 16,000 UK workers – said 95% of its workers said they’d like to be able to spend some of their time working flexibly and remotely in different locations.

But she said it had to be mindful that many staff appreciate being in an office, such as staff who live alone or don’t have a suitable place to work.

Recruitment firm Adecco, which has 34,000 UK workers, said about four-fifths of its staff now work remotely.

“Rather than having pre-set rules we are encouraging our leaders to engage with colleagues to implement strategies that work for their business,” it said.

Business research company Trends Research questioned 50 big employers jointly employing over 1million UK workers, ranging from banks to retailers, to get an idea of when workers may return to the office.

The companies said that they were opening offices “in line with government guidance”, which means many plan to reopen offices from 21 June.

Some have already reopened their offices to a limited number of workers.

Investment firm JP Morgan and recruiter Michael Page allowed workers to return from 29 March, while Adecco, recruiter Hays Group and WPP reopened offices on 12 April.

Investment firm Rathbones has allowed workers to return “if they wish” subject to a 25% capacity.

WPP reopened its UK offices at a 30% capacity, but is increasing that to 50% this month.

Many have given workers the choice, with Michael Page saying staff could return to the office “should they choose to do so”.

Meanwhile, software firm the Sage Group said: “Colleagues can request to work from the office if they feel unable to do so effectively at home.”

But some other companies are delaying their office re-opening plans.

Outsourcing giant Capita said workers have been told they will work from home until at least the end of the second quarter while Lloyds Bank has asked staff to stay at home until at least the summer.

‘Dreading it’ or ‘can’t wait’ – what do workers think?

Tom, who works in property, is not looking forward to going back to the office. The commute is long, expensive, uncomfortable and unnecessary, telling Business Matters he said: “My office is modern and seemingly comfortable. But the culture can be difficult and the false familiarity is suffocating. It’s a petri dish of anxiety and breeding ground of mental health issues.”

He says working at home is more comfortable.

“The technology enables a more inclusive mode of working where information is shared more easily and talent can shine. There’s also more time for family and more time for real friends.”

In contrast, David Kimberly said he “couldn’t wait”. He returned to the stockbroker’s office he works at two weeks ago.

“There’s something healthy about having a psychological separation between your work and home life. I find that hard to do when I’m working from home,”.

“There’s something quite gloomy, especially in winter, about working from home, and it’s depressing waking up and commuting to your kitchen.

“It also makes it much harder to collaborate. I work closely with another member of the team and in the office we can sort things out in seconds, When working from home it can take 10 minutes to get a response, and you have no real idea about how they’re feeling as you can’t see them to gauge their emotions.”

Former British government advisor, and flexible working champion, Richard Alvin commented on the survey findings saying: “I am pleased that many of the UKs businesses have woken up to the benefits of flexible working. Managed properly it can be a win-win for both the business and its staff.”

Shutting sites

Only a few of the companies surveyed have been shutting offices, with some saying they will wait until leases run out.

Capita has closed 49 out of 294 of its offices since the start of the pandemic while accountants Deloitte has closed offices at Gatwick, Liverpool, Nottingham and Southampton.

Lloyds Bank said it plans to close 20% of its offices over the next three years while NatWest closed its Regent House, London office last summer, in a move that had been planned, but speeded up by the pandemic.

Newspaper group Reach has closed its district offices as part of a move to a hub-based model. It has been left with 15 large offices or ‘hubs’.

Meanwhile, Welsh Water closed its head office last year.

But not all are keen on the move away from offices.

WPP boss Mark Read said: “I worry about the long-term impact on the enterprise, on our culture, on collaboration, on how we train people, on how we develop people.

“Advertising and creative industries are something you learn from your colleagues and you can only do that, really, if you’re around them in an office.”