UK PM Boris Johnson recently addressed the nation to urge people to ‘work from home if possible’ to stop the spread of COVID-19. This announcement was a reverse of his campaign to persuade office workers to return to the workplace, with the Government’s initial plans due to start on 1st October 2020.
While I understand the public health imperatives and whole heartedly support them, this U-turn comes at a time when critical momentum was beginning to return to the economy. These new government guidelines present many challenges for businesses and are undoubtedly a massive blow to protecting British jobs and Britain’s position in the global economy.
The message lacks clarity and does not support UK businesses because it fails to reflect the investments that companies have made to create COVID-Secure workplaces. Furthermore, it does not take into account the detrimental impact on the mental health and wellbeing of workers after a prolonged period of working from home.
Colliers latest Workplace Advisory research, ‘Exploring the post-COVID-19 Workplace’ which evaluates feedback from its global Work from Home survey to discuss future workplace trends, found some support for the continuation of working from home after the pandemic is over, but also a desire to return to the office to collaborate with colleagues, and have a defined work and home life balance. The research found that while on the one hand, organisations can work remotely, be productive, and stay connected, the office is very much of key importance, because it is hard to create a compelling, cohesive team when working remotely. Face-to-face interaction is essential in order to build true, meaningful connections.
In addition, many successful innovations and collaborations arise unexpectedly in an office, via what the research describes as serendipity, and this is hard to achieve over scheduled video calls. So perhaps in light of the new measures, a balance could be found whereby organisations can on the one hand, create enough space to allow people and teams to meet in the office when they need to, while on the other hand, managing their space efficiency and flattening workplace occupancy peaks?
There is no question that the physical health and safety of employees is the first and primary concern for every business in the UK, but given the sacrifices that have already been made by small, medium and large businesses throughout the economy to reopen the workplaces and create COVID-Secure environments, its mission critical that we now leverage this expertise, experience and investment to maintain and build economic momentum. In certain industries, it is critical that offices remain open for employees to continue to use them, for all or part of the time, or if their personal circumstances make it difficult to work from home, to deliver client service remotely or collaborate with team members.
What can businesses do? They should continue to be super cautious, consider a dual strategy of risk mitigation in the wider society and a more resilient focus on rebuilding economic momentum. Individual choice should be facilitated for those organisations and workplaces that require in-person interaction to facilitate collaboration to deliver business results and drive economic growth. In addition, businesses may require an organisational behaviour change, with planned collaboration days between teams and set remote working schedules.
Occupiers are still viewing real estate as a fundamental part of their future plans. However these new Government guidelines could affect any immediate decision making, with some choosing to defer until there is more clarity. The Government needs to support British businesses to help them succeed and survive in the global economy and this encompasses keeping open offices as and where possible as low occupancy rates and void periods could hamper future economic growth.
By Andrew Hallissey, Executive Managing Director, Europe the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Colliers International