For some, work­ing from home has been too suc­cess­ful

As min­is­ters be­gin en­tic­ing staff back to the of­fice to sup­port city cen­tres, many bosses pre­dict re­sis­tance, finds Michael O’Dwyer

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business -

Boris John­son wants Bri­tons to get back to the of­fice this week but com­pa­nies and em­ploy­ees are prov­ing re­luc­tant to turn their backs on the re­mote work­ing revo­lu­tion. The Gov­ern­ment needs cities to get back up and run­ning to save cafés, pubs and restau­rants that rely on of­fice work­ers to sus­tain them.

The prob­lem the Prime Min­is­ter faces is that the home work­ing ex­per­i­ment has been so suc­cess­ful that his call for com­muters to get back on buses and trains is be­ing ig­nored.

“In the words of The Spe­cials, I’m sit­ting in a ghost town,” says Nigel Wil­son, boss of Le­gal & Gen­eral, from the in­vest­ment firm’s Moor­gate head­quar­ters in the City of Lon­don.

Wil­son has been back in the of­fice since late April but he is in the mi­nor­ity.

Staff stay­ing at home find them­selves with more free time and wel­come respite from the grind of the daily com­mute. Man­agers have re­alised that em­ploy­ees can get on with the job without some­one look­ing over their shoul­der. Many are also ner­vous about out­breaks of Covid-19 in the work­place.

“I reckon that we’ve gone for­ward 20 years in terms of peo­ple’s un­der­stand­ing of flex­i­ble work­ing,” says Peter Harrison, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Schroders, the UK’s big­gest as­set man­ager. “Flex­i­ble work­ing is the big­gest bonus we could pos­si­bly have for pro­duc­tiv­ity in the long term. Let’s walk to­wards it and let’s fig­ure out how we work dif­fer­ently in the fu­ture.”

Schroders has re­opened its of­fices as a “sanc­tu­ary” for staff who want to re­turn but only about 100 out of 2,500 staff were in the of­fice last week, Harrison says. Num­bers could in­crease in Septem­ber but it is too early to de­cide when to start call­ing peo­ple back in, he adds.

City bosses feel they can af­ford to take their time get­ting staff back at their desks be­cause work­ing from home has been a roar­ing suc­cess.

“The pan­demic has hap­pened at pre­cisely the same time as our re­gional broad­band has got re­ally good,” says Harrison. “Com­pa­nies have got enough in­vest­ment in tech­nol­ogy that you can have video con­fer­enc­ing and all the rest so why not make the most of it?”

For many firms the ques­tion is not when staff will re­turn to the of­fice full time but how they will split their work­ing week be­tween the of­fice and home.

Di­rect Line, one of the coun­try’s big­gest in­sur­ers, is one of many that has in­creased its in­vest­ment in tech­nol­ogy and cy­ber­se­cu­rity to help staff log­ging in from bed­rooms, liv­ing rooms, and even gar­den sheds, to work ef­fi­ciently.

Penny James, the in­surer’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, says she is try­ing to cre­ate a sus­tain­able ver­sion of home work­ing so that it be­comes a long-term op­tion for the busi­ness.

Di­rect Line, which owns brands such as Churchill and Green Flag, ex­pects no more than 20pc of its 9,000 staff to re­turn to of­fices this year.

The re­mote work­ing revo­lu­tion has

‘Flex­i­ble work­ing is the big­gest bonus we could pos­si­bly have for pro­duc­tiv­ity in the long term’ ‘The pan­demic has hap­pened at pre­cisely the same time as our re­gional broad­band has got re­ally good’

sparked talk of fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions slash­ing their floorspace in cities but most are mov­ing more cau­tiously for now. Grow­ing busi­nesses ex­pect that they may be able to in­crease their work­force without rent­ing new of­fices.

“If we ex­pand and we need more of­fice space in Lon­don, would I take more of­fice space? No. I would ac­tu­ally en­cour­age cer­tain func­tions to work from home,” says Alex Maloney, chief ex­ec­u­tive of FTSE 250 in­surer Lancashire.

Paul Stock­ton, boss of as­set man­ager Rath­bones, says his firm will take some time be­fore de­cid­ing whether to cut its of­fice space but will not be tak­ing on more in the mean­time.

Like most fi­nan­cial ser­vices chiefs, Stock­ton ex­pects a hy­brid model with staff work­ing re­motely some of the time but of­fices still hav­ing a role to play. “Hav­ing some sort of prop­erty foot­print is im­por­tant be­cause it’s a meet­ing place in a peo­ple busi­ness.

It’s also a meet­ing place for our clients,” he says. Of­fices also help to cre­ate a sense of to­geth­er­ness among col­leagues, he adds.

His­cox, the in­surer, re­opened its Lon­don of­fice over a month ago but most of its staff have stayed away. Only two of the nine floors are even open and those are far from full.

Bronek Ma­so­jada, its chief ex­ec­u­tive, says he will be en­cour­ag­ing, but not forc­ing, staff to come into the firm’s of­fice and meet their col­leagues in Au­gust.

“It’s amaz­ing how ac­tu­ally there’s a psy­chic plea­sure and relief in leav­ing your home where you’ve been con­strained and com­ing into the of­fice to see peo­ple you’ve been work­ing with all that time,” he says.

Work­ers in other coun­tries have been quicker to get back to the of­fice. In His­cox’s Ger­man of­fice, about 50pc of staff have re­turned and there is a so­ci­etal ex­pec­ta­tion to do so, says

Ma­so­jada. So far, the Gov­ern­ment’s pleas for peo­ple to get back on commuter trains and into the of­fice have not cre­ated a sim­i­lar ex­pec­ta­tion in the UK, heap­ing pain on city cen­tre shops and bars.

If there is no vac­cine soon, some­thing else may have to change be­fore peo­ple want to get back to the of­fice. A spell of cold weather and soar­ing home heat­ing bills might en­cour­age some peo­ple to re­think.

“It’s cer­tainly true that lock­down has been through a glorious pe­riod of weather,” says James, Di­rect Line’s boss. “Whether peo­ple feel the same in a win­ter is untested. I sus­pect some will, some won’t.”

For those that do re­turn, they may find many of their favourite din­ing spots have al­ready been squeezed out of ex­is­tence. What is not clear is whether there will ever again be enough of­fice work­ing for them all to re­turn.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.