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
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.