One year on: Does the office still have a place in a post-Covid world?

Nobody can say with absolute certainty how the world of work will look after we re-emerge into the sunlight of relative normality from the darkness of lockdown.

But one expert believes we’ll be returning to the office – and is encouraging what could be seen as a somewhat laissez-faire attitude among workers in such an event.

"Don’t be as concerned about turning up late to work,” says Andrew Cooke, strategic director at Bruntwood Works, as part of a guide on how to get your “office mojo” back when going back to formal rather than more familiar surroundings.

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“Allow yourself extra time in the morning to prepare yourself for the commute, whether this be meditation, a longer walk to the station, or just time to pick up a coffee on the way – whatever improves your mental wellbeing the most.”

More than 1,200 chain stores permanently closed in Scotland last year, amid a lack of workers in city centres. Picture: John Devlin.

It is hard to imagine all employers being quite so easy-going about such an approach – but what does seem far more certain is the world of work has changed for ever by the seismic impact and ongoing aftershock of Covid-19.

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Locked-down workers have swapped chats around the water cooler for home-brewed cuppas, and lost the time and expense of a commute and instead taken on the often-blurred work-life boundaries of telecommuting.

And this leaching out of footfall from city centres, taking workers’ wallets with it, has inevitably taken its toll.

PwC has just revealed more than 1,200 chain stores permanently closed in Scotland last year, with just 612 openings – while the figure for the whole of Britain came in at 17,532 closures compared to 7,655 openings.

“Even discounting the likely final impact of the pandemic, 2020 is the worst performance in recent years,” the accountancy giant said.

Furthermore, the latest Scottish retail sales figures show a slight recovery in February, but still at a decline of about a quarter on a total basis – and the news follows Thorntons announcing that it is shutting all of its branches and with many restaurants such as Prezzo and Pizza Express reducing their number of outlets.

As for whether the days of the office are numbered, there is certainly no lack of parties, from a host of sectors, looking to boost their top line by helping people remain in their home domain.

That includes discount supermarket Aldi unveiling its new interior range – to get the “ultimate Zoom-worthy home office” – while Fife-based timber and manufacturing specialist James Donaldson Group earlier this year unveiled a new division specialising in bespoke home offices.

Several architects have outlined how they expect such facilities to comprise a growing part of their business, while some people are preferring to up sticks entirely to ensure their home suits their changed needs.

Property developer Dundas Estates has flagged how homes at its Pace Hill development in Milnathort, near Kinross, come with a “perfect work-from-home environment” with dedicated offices and full-fibre broadband. It comes after it saw demand for bigger homes come in at up to seven times its forecast.

That would suit both people working from home full time or those splitting this with some time in the office – or hybrid working, to give it its proper name – and this is seen by many as the most popular option going forwards, providing the best of both worlds.

Reinforcing this is the recent survey from recruiter Robert Half finding about 90 per cent of UK firms expect hybrid workforces to become a permanent part of working life, and nearly 70 per cent of workers would like to continue working from home for one to three days a week going forward.

Significant

Additionally, accountancy giants PwC and KPMG have been making significant investment to enable such a dual way of working a key part of their strategies, for example – and Chancellor Rishi Sunak recently said office workers are unlikely to return in full after the pandemic.

He also cited the rise of "neighbourhood" serviced offices – and indeed, firms considering a reduction of their office square footage could well benefit from flexible access to such premises – a kind of half-way house between home and work.

International Workplace Group (IWG), for example, which owns brands including Regus, said recently that while Covid-19 has led to the most challenging year in its history, it also provides its “greatest opportunity in 31 years”.

Boss Mark Dixon said the group, which is present in 120 countries, anticipates a “massive surge in growth” when it emerges from the downturn.

IWG believes changes to how organisations work have been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, but under way since the dawn of the digital era, which began in the 1970s with the arrival of the first personal computers.

“Some five decades on, the only 'analogue residue' still holding companies back from going fully digital was the physical space they worked in,” Mr Dixon said.

"Now, the pandemic has finally and permanently blown this away … why should companies go to all the expense of providing city centre-based office accommodation when recent months have shown that people can be at least as effective, engaged and productive elsewhere?”

Additionally, fellow serviced office provider Offices.co.uk, which is present in Scotland, saw enquiries for space in major UK cities jump 800 per cent on February 23 after Boris Johnson’s road map out of lockdown was revealed.

That day saw “a real change in tone”, according to Offices.co.uk senior broker Jonathan Ratcliffe, who said businesses “are changing their outlook – we look forward to seeing this confidence increase”.

The firm realistically expects people to return to the office properly in September, although it also expects smaller, more flexible workspaces to be the way forward. “The workplace has definitely changed, but it still has its place,” Mr Ratcliffe said.

Also a believer the office isn’t obsolete is global jobs site Indeed, which has found that 60 per cent of vacancies posted by employers on its platform since the start of the year that call for home working describe the measure as “temporary”.

That is nearly twice the level seen in November – and research by Indeed and the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development found the biggest drop in job adverts was to be found in the services sector, with London seeing a fall of 61 per cent.

“Many of these jobs are low paid, which means their disappearance risks widening urban inequality,” the report said.

Pawel Adrjan of Indeed said: “Of all the new trends that have emerged as a result of the pandemic and lockdowns, the sudden and seemingly irresistible rise of remote working has raised the most questions, because of what it means for city centres and businesses that rely on office workers’ footfall and spending.

“Future working practices could therefore involve less working from home than during lockdown, but more than before the pandemic. The office is not dead – but we may visit it less than we used to.”

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