Market Insight

To return to the workplace, or not. That is the question

September 11, 2020

Having experienced some of the positive effects of their employees working from home, many businesses are now entertaining the idea of a return to the workplace, encouraged by the recent ‘back to office’ campaign from Government.

However, as COVID-19 cases begin to edge up once more across the UK and restrictions begin to increase, there is some reluctance from the business community to make the move just yet, with just 34% of people reportedly having returned to the workplace. In Europe, by comparison, the number is almost three-fold. 

As concerns are raised over the Government’s own social distancing guidelines which are said to prevent businesses from getting staff back to their desks safely, it would seem that the return to work campaign is floundering

On the back of some of the successes of homeworking, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has also made their views on the matter heard. 

The EHRC issued a statement calling on the Government to bring forward its planned consultation on flexible working, asking for flexible working to become a day one right for employees, unless there is a genuine business case not to do so.

Now, more than ever, employers are allowing more flexibility in the workplace which is absolutely to be applauded. 

This is in part COVID-19 induced but it is also about a sense of responsibility towards our employees and in recognition of the positive effect that homeworking can have. 

However, a balance needs to be struck for employee and employer and we must not forget that working from home does not work well for everyone. 

This is where the matter of ‘choice’ becomes an important factor in the return to work equation. 

As we have seen from recent media coverage, the subject is of heated debate with talk of increased job risk if you do not return to the workplace, as well as a perceived need to ‘prove one’s worth’ by complying with your business’ stance. 

Clearly, there are many factors to consider as part of a return to the workplace strategy and one of the most important is the health and safety of staff. 

Space and wellbeing 

For some, working from home has negatively impacted mental health and wellbeing as time has gone on and employers have a responsibility to address this. Offering more flexible working arrangements, with the option of a return to the office could help, whilst enabling those less fortunate, the opportunity to escape from their one bedroom flat or shared apartment.

But you have to be sure that you have the space necessary to implement effective social distancing to protect your staff as far as possible. 

Speaking to a property agent to calculate COVID-19 appropriate space requirements is advisable. 

Brand and cultural erosion 

A return to the office could also help to address the growing issue of brand erosion, as well as improving collaboration and innovation which have all suffered as a result of virtual meeting fatigue, making cultural responsibility increasingly difficult to deliver on – both for employer and employee. 

Supporting the future generation 

Businesses also have a responsibility to the next generation of workers starting out in their careers, to enable them to gain the on-premise work experience they need in order to learn on the job from their peers. 

Economic responsibility 

And let’s not forget the wider economic responsibility we have to our local business communities.
Supporting those businesses that held us up when we were at the office – from the small sandwich shop you got your lunch from, to the coffee vendors that kept us going, is a responsibility we should all embrace, many of whom are now suffering the effects of dwindling government support, particularly in those areas affected by regional lockdowns. 

We may be saving money on our daily commutes, but others are affected by the Paradox of Thrift effect as a result. 

No one-size-fits all solution 

Prior to the pandemic it was recognised that a ‘cookie-cutter’ office fit out was not the right solution. Now we must recognise that nor is a 100% work-from-home model.
Whilst there is no one-size-fits-all approach, a return to the office to one extent or another is a must, provided that people are not being put at unduly at risk. 

However, this is a process which requires careful consideration and planning, to protect both business and employee interests. 

Many companies are achieving this is through a blended approach to the work environment, with elements of both office and homeworking, providing employees with access to more regional satellite offices. 

This hub and spoke approach to property strategies, reduces overall central office presence in favour of smaller but more numerous regional office spaces which can be accessed by employees on a more flexible basis. 

But before you action that break clause in your lease, be sure to speak to a property expert first.
We will look at your needs as a whole and will help to plan and deliver the right property strategy to meet your future requirements in this new and ever present COVID-19 world. 

Contact David Thomas, partner based in out Thames Valley office, for more information.