Rishi Sunak has called for employers and workers alike to reconsider working from home arrangements where they can, with the Chancellor recently warning staff may “vote with their feet” if companies got rid of offices all together. These views have proven to be controversial and many may feel the state may be overbearing (arguably, once more) on how private citizens and companies should behave.
Recently, Infogrid surveyed 2,000 UK employees to gather insight on how they viewed workplaces going forward and 50 percent revealed they were concerned about returning to physical offices.
The employees said regular cleaning has the biggest impact on how safe they feel to return to the office (73 percent), with other popular measures including limiting the number of people in spaces (69 percent), and improve air quality to reduce the spread of COVID-19 (61 percent).
Ashley Carr, the Founder and Managing Director at Neo PR, was particularly critical of the Chancellor’s comments: “Rishi Sunak is wrong to think that all workers want to head straight back to the office post-lockdown. Outmoded and old fashioned views of the traditional office being the only place that team-building, ‘riffing’ off each other, and culture can be facilitated, fly in the face of the obviousness of the truth that every business has spent the last 12 months learning how to do this online – and most with great success.
“Yes companies need to recognise the growing number of ‘returners’, individuals desperate to leave the kitchen table behind, throw off the onesie and interact with colleagues, preferably every day.
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“But at the other end of the scale, there are a large number of ‘remainers’ who would happily never endure a physical meeting ever again, and are perfectly content at home, with zero commute and no need to dress up. These two tribes may be at the extremes so how will companies plan to manage many very different expectations of working life – and also ensure individuals work together effectively for the business?
“The challenge for business owners and managers will be to actively manage employees to achieve some synchronicity in the way different tribes come together. This is not about setting rules and dictating how, when and where employees interact. The past year has changed employee perceptions too much to make that approach viable or successful: setting rules runs the risk of eradicating the flexibility employees desire. Managers will need to work with employees and highlight the importance of face to face interactions – not only for them but for their colleagues and the wider business.
“Essentially, business owners and managers need to accept that employee management just got a whole lot tougher – and active management is going to be essential to create a productive, well balanced and committed workforce wherever and however they choose to work.”
Similar sentiment was shared by Richard Skellett, an IT industry expert who has employed around 7,000 workers over the course of 25 years, who said: “The Government are so out of touch with future of business and future of work. They talk about flexible working but don’t understand that the only route to that is via output working. In output working it’s absolutely imperative that there is an alignment between the individual’s aspirations and the organisation’s. That means why commute to a desk each day and lose all that time which impacts productivity.
“People will no longer relocate to get a job and jobs will simply move to where the people are. The very best talent won’t be in office and do bear in mind that the bulk of the work that people do today is process based.
“Everything and anything which is processed based will be carried out by a digital worker so humans won’t be needed there. Companies require fewer people and therefore won’t need as much office space. It’s all money saving of course.”
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On top of this, some warn that if Rishi’s calls are heeded, it could have the opposite intended effect.
Anthony Lamoureux, the CEO at Velocity Smart Technology, warned of grave long term consequences: “Rishi Sunak’s comments urging businesses to encourage workers to get back into the office or risk losing them may ring true with some, but certainly not with the majority.
“We researched this very issue in December 2020 using an independent research house and results showed an overwhelming majority (83 percent) of UK office workers agreed that remote working is here to stay.
“People aren’t getting tired of working from home – they’re tired of lockdown measures and effectively being a prisoner in their own homes.
“Instead of worrying about the opinions of office space owners, business leaders would be better placed to focus on employee wellbeing and long-term mental health issues. Lockdown measures should prompt business leaders to switch their attention from key business outcomes to employee motivation. Indeed, our research showed that almost half of UK office workers (49 percent) cited a lack of personal motivation while working from home during the pandemic.
“Yes, there’ll always be a need for an office as we crave face-to-face interactions, but if the Chancellor is pushing us to return to the office, have proper safety measures been implemented to protect employees? Catching Covid-19 from their department was the top concern (40 percent) of UK employees returning to the office, narrowly ahead of the worry about catching Covid from shared office equipment (37 percent).
“And almost two thirds (65 percent) would advocate for at least two metres between their desk and a colleague’s desk.
“So no, I don’t believe we’ll see people quitting if ‘forced’ to work from home. As vaccinations rates improve and restrictions ease, employees will be able to pick and choose what their working week looks like. In fact, we may see people quit if they’re forced to work in an office ever again!”
While safety and convenience are of course top concerns for employees the financial impact of working from home should not be forgotten.
As millions were forced to adapt, it became apparent that some workers would save drastic amounts on commuting costs, with recent data from the Office for Budget Responsibility showing British people collectively saved £143.5billion in total since March 2020.
These savings can be illustrated by additional research, which hammers home how costly it could prove to be for workers to head back into offices on a regular basis.
In February, Claromentis, the integrated digital workplace firm, conducted research into office habits and preferences which detailed that in a single month, the average remote worker saved £120 per month in commute costs, £47 on coffee and refreshments, £62 on lunch, £70 on other costs and parents saved an additional £60 per month in reduced childcare costs.
Similar work was conducted by AccuraCast who, on the back of a recent YouGov survey, estimated the average consumer could have saved up to £19,372 over the last year or so.
This breaks down as follows:
- Average cost of commute per year £1,738
- Cost of a daily cup of coffee per year – £720
- Cost of daily lunch at work per year – £1,200
- Annual cost of gym membership – £480
- Annual cost of cost of childcare – £9,594
- Mobile phone data per year – £60
- Average eating out annual costs – £10,403
- Average going out annual costs – £840
- Average costs of spending on clothes – £1,200
- Average annual cost of holidays – £2,500
Farhad Divecha, the founder and managing director at AccuraCast, reflected on these figures: “It is astounding to think how much could be saved over the course of the last 12 months, when most people have been working from home and been in lockdown for the majority of it.
“Obviously not everyone will have been able to work from home, or take advantage of these savings, but this is just an idea of what areas people could save money on. These figures also don’t take into account where people may have needed to pay out more – for example, extra utility bills, extra food bills and even swapping workwear costs for lounge wear costs.”
Even with the practical and monetary concerns set aside, others warn the psychological impact may provide unexpected and unwelcome costly repercussions.
Dr Lucy Davey, a coach for professional women, warned she was concerned that childcare costs will rise for workers, who at the moment can just “pop out on the school run and resume their work at home a short while later”.
Dr Davey explained childcare is “a significant consideration for working parents” with some potentially spending up to 55 percent of their average earnings on the costs.
She argued the pandemic “exposed the stark reality that it is entirely possible to continue working at the desired level (in some cases at much improved levels) and drastically reduce childcare costs simply by removing the external ‘office’ from the equation.”
Over the last year or so, working parents have “got used to greater flexibility, less financial outlays and more quality time spent at home in the absence of the commute” and as such, she believed it will be “very difficult” to entice working parents back into the office.
Organisational psychologists Karen Meager & John McLachlan also argued a potential forced return to the office will heighten people’s anxiety and fears, leading to more absence and sick days.
In the long term, this could lead to burnout for workers which can take months or even years to fully recover from, leading to extended sick leave and statutory sick pay.
Karen concluded with the following comments: “Rishi Sunak put some powerful arguments for a return to office life in terms of learning and personal development. These advantages need to be weighed against the very real worries some employees may have, not just about the office but the whole commute. In likelihood, a hybrid mix of part home working and some time spent in an office may work out to be the best way towards returning to a new normality that works for both organisations and their people.”