Covid-19 has changed working patterns for good, UK survey finds

Most office workers do not intend to spend five days a week in the workplace once the Covid-19 crisis is over, with both bosses and employees seeing home working as a long-term trend..

The pandemic has changed working patterns for good, a survey from the British Council for Offices (BCO) has found. In future white-collar workers will adopt a mixed approach, combining remote working with several days a week in the office.

Employees at all levels, from executives to trainees, intend or hope to divide their time in future between their homes and their workplaces, according to a survey of 2,000 office workers conducted in September.

Sixty-two percent of senior executives and 58% of entry-level workers want to alternate, according to the BCO, which has around 3,500 members including large office occupiers, architects, engineers and big property firms including Land Securities and British Land.

Before the government’s U-turn on encouraging workers to return to their desks, 46% of workers told the BCO they planned to divide their time between home and the office over the next six months. Only 30% said they were considering returning to the office for five days a week, and 15% that were intending to work exclusively at home.

“We are never going to go back how things were before,” said the BCO’s chief executive, Richard Kauntze. “The idea that people will return to the five-day week in the office has gone, and I think a much more blended approach is likely, two or three days in the office and two-three at home or wherever is going to be a much more typical pattern. Most people will value being able to work on that basis.”

The Institute of Directors agrees that more firms are taking a mixed approach to where their employees work. A new IoD survey of almost 1,000 directors found that three-quarters anticipated more home-working after the pandemic, and more than half planned to reduce their long-term use of workplaces.

Roger Barker, the IoD’s director of policy, said the government should help small firms invest in new technologies to support home working by expanding the scope of R&D tax reliefs. He also said managers should consider employees’ mental health when moving towards remote working.

“Working from home doesn’t work for everyone, and directors must be alive to the downsides. Managing teams remotely can prove far from straightforward, and directors must make sure they are going out of their way to support employees’ mental wellbeing,” he said.

Before the government guidance for England changed, 64% of workers had spent some time in the office since the start of August.

BCO members including the accountancy firm PwC, and large banks such as HSBC, abruptly hit pause on their plans to bring staff back when the government changed its guidance.

Seven out of 10 workers the BCO surveyed said the office was important for learning and developing networks. Two-thirds said their career had been helped by relationships made in the office.

Younger employees, who often working from cramped shared houses, are missing out on training and guidance which they would normally receive from more experienced colleagues, Kauntze said.

“The anchor of having an office, a place where they can work comfortably, where they can socialise, safely of course, where they can talk to people not via a screen and can have coffee and lunch, is absolutely crucial for their mental wellbeing and their development,” he said.

The IoD also believes offices will remain valuable places for interaction and collaboration, particularly for new colleagues.

“For many companies, bringing teams together in person proves more productive and enjoyable. Shared workspace often provides employees the opportunity for informal development and networking that is so crucial, particularly early on in a career,” Barker said.

Kauntze criticised Boris Johnson’s announcement that new coronavirus restrictions could potentially last six months, which came just a couple of weeks after workers had been urged to return to their desks.

Businesses of all sizes had spent money on making their buildings as safe and secure as is possible and the work-from-home guidance should be kept under constant review, he said.

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