One of the major economic consequences of Covid-19 is that it’s reshaped the world of work. If you’re not a key worker, odds are you’ll have had to adapt to working at home. However, as of right now, when death rates are falling and vaccination numbers are rising, companies are facing difficult choices about their work culture – should they allow employees to keeping working from home, or demand they return to the office? It’s a big debate with no easy answers, so I’m going to dig into some of the factors that may influence these decisions.
Some bosses have been perfectly clear that they expect their workers to return to work in person. In New York, James Gorman, the CEO of Morgan Stanley, told his employees that it was time for them to physically return to work: “If you can go to a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office. And we want you in the office.” He said that, although the company would be flexible, he’d “be very disappointed if people haven’t found their way into the office” by September. His views were echoed by the Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, who said he expected vaccinated employees to return to the office.
Some bosses have been perfectly clear that they expect their workers to return to work in person
In the UK, the picture seems a little different. According to a BBC report from May, almost all of 50 of the UK’s biggest employers say that they do not intend to bring staff back to the office full-time. 43 of the firms said that they wanted to embrace a mix of home and office working, with staff encouraged to work from home two to three days a week, and a further four said they were keeping the idea under review. Mark Read, chief executive of the advertising firm WPP, said: “We’re never going to go back to working the way we used to work.”
There had been speculation that the government may get involved in the situation, and demand workers return to the office, but that has proven incorrect. Speaking to the Guardian, government sources said companies will be allowed to make their own decisions. One source said: “The message we are hearing from business is not demanding a return, there is no pressure from that direction. The pandemic has made everyone reappraise how they balance their lives. The flexible working consultation actually pre-dates the pandemic – it’s about how people prioritise their different responsibilities including caring and children. It’s a train that has been in motion for a long time. But I think this past year has made everyone see that presenteeism isn’t always necessary.”
LinkedIn research shows 69% of UK workers think their employer expects them to return to the office, but there is trepidation – 30% feel apprehensive, while 22% are excited to go back. There are different perspectives – 49% prefer hybrid working, 38% want to work remotely and 12% want a full-time return to the office. More than half of workers say their employer has been adaptable with working from home, and that they like the flexibility. However, 22% fear falling into the trap of ‘digital presenteeism’, whereby they have to demonstrate they’re working longer hours to look committed. Mike Clancy, general secretary of the Prospect union, has been pushing for a “right to disconnect”, ensuring people working from home cannot be asked to do significantly more.
The flexible working consultation actually pre-dates the pandemic – it’s about how people prioritise their different responsibilities including caring and children. It’s a train that has been in motion for a long time
But, in all of this, it’s easy to forget that other businesses rely on office workers. A number of cafes, restaurants and businesses local to large offices have reported major drops in custom since office workers were told to work from home – in some cases, as much as 80% declines linked solely to the loss of this customer base – and they are hopeful that people will be returning to offices. The office property market is also struggling – it’s seeing a rise at the moment from a very low point, and office providers will be hoping that companies don’t see office space as a thing of the past.
It’s possible, however, that this may all be a bit of a temporary move. The Centre for Cities think tank told the BBC that it anticipates a short-term blended approach, followed by a shift back to pre-Covid working models for many. Paul Swinney, director of policy and research at the think tank, said: “I expect we will see three or four days a week in the office as the UK recovers. Over the longer term, I’m quite hopeful that we will see people return five days a week. The reason for that is one of the benefits of being in the office is having interactions with other people, coming up with new ideas and sharing information.”
At the moment, it’s hard to say what will happen – there are good reasons for and against the return to the office, and it’s likely that every company and business will have its own approach to making work work for them.