Home work­ing is here to stay, but not all busi­nesses see the ben­e­fits

Straight-talk­ing, com­mon sense from the front line of man­age­ment

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business - sir john timp­son Sir John Timp­son is chair­man of the high street ser­vices provider, Timp­son. Send him an email at askjohn@tele­graph.co.uk

QGiven what the coro­n­avirus cri­sis has shown us about work­ing from home – namely its ease and ef­fec­tive­ness – do you see a fu­ture in which most UK em­ploy­ees will work re­motely? What would the im­pli­ca­tions be?

AIf lock­down had only lasted four weeks, it would have been quickly for­got­ten about and life would have picked up from where we left it on March 23. But af­ter 17 weeks of Zoom calls and so­cial dis­tanc­ing, I’m be­gin­ning to won­der whether we will ever be the same again.

Sud­denly ev­ery­one was told to stay at home to save lives and many worked long hours from home to save their busi­nesses.

For a lot of com­pa­nies, April and May 2020 will be re­mem­bered as one of the most cre­ative times in their his­tory. Two years’ de­vel­op­ment took place in the space of two months. The sense of ur­gency en­cour­aged com­mand and con­trol com­pa­nies to aban­don long­winded pro­cesses and get things done by giv­ing front-line col­leagues the free­dom to make de­ci­sions. No won­der home work­ing has been seen as such a suc­cess.

We now know that it’s a lot eas­ier to shut the coun­try down than get it mov­ing again. We at Timp­son man­aged to close all our 2,150 shops within 24 hours, but it took two months to re­open them and could take at least an­other six be­fore we see busi­ness get­ting back to pre-Covid lev­els.

Re­open­ing an of­fice is equally dif­fi­cult, with a tem­per­a­ture check in the reception area, a one-way sys­tem and a new lay­out needed to make sure col­leagues keep their dis­tance and keep safe. Of­fice build­ings don’t have enough space to ac­com­mo­date ev­ery­one who was there be­fore lock­down, so an in­crease in re­mote work­ing seems in­evitable.

I sus­pect the long-term ben­e­fits of work­ing from home will out­weigh the short­com­ings. Peo­ple who value swap­ping a two-hour jour­ney to work for more time with their fam­ily will out­num­ber the extroverts keen to get back on the train and meet for a cou­ple of pints af­ter of­fice hours. For most, get­ting to know their neigh­bours much bet­ter and spend­ing qual­ity time at home has been one of the big­gest ben­e­fits of lock­down. Chil­dren might have missed an im­por­tant part of their ed­u­ca­tion, but they will have ben­e­fited from a stronger at­tach­ment with mum and dad.

But for some house­holds, stay­ing at home has put a se­vere strain on their re­la­tion­ship. In 2021, we are likely to see an in­crease in di­vorce, a rise in chil­dren com­ing into care and more men­tal health prob­lems.

Have you no­ticed how we are split­ting into Covid hawks and doves? Hawks who are keen to dou­ble guess the next guide­line, and doves who only feel com­fort­able if they are stick­ing well within the rules. For many months, doves will be re­luc­tant to go on a train, fly, brave the su­per­mar­ket or go back to the of­fice. Ca­nary Wharf may be a lot qui­eter for a long time.

All this might be good news for Zoom, but the change in life­style makes a ma­jor dif­fer­ence to city cen­tre eco­nomics. Timp­son is start­ing to re­cover from the pan­demic with our over­all drop in sales now only 15pc be­low last year, but our shops in the City of Lon­don are 87pc down. No won­der Pret a Manger has been hav­ing a tough time.

De­spite the ob­vi­ous ben­e­fits of op­er­at­ing from home, a lot of work in 2022 will still be done in offices and fac­to­ries. Com­pa­nies re­quire a cen­tral fo­cus and col­leagues need to meet the oth­ers in their team. I’m look­ing for­ward to our next board meet­ing, where we can get to­gether round the same ta­ble (Zoom and Face­Time miss the magic of meet­ing face to face).

Work­ing from home is no longer just for the self-em­ployed; flex­i­ble work­ing is now a re­al­ity. The pan­demic has prob­a­bly pro­duced a per­ma­nent shift in the way we live our lives. As a re­sult, the pub­lic is chang­ing how and where they spend their money and busi­ness must ad­just to this di­men­sion of the new nor­mal.

A nearly de­serted Reuters Plaza in Ca­nary Wharf, east Lon­don, at mid­day on April 22

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