A workplace paradigm shift?

Many companies are now planning to bring staff back off furlough (at its peak there were 9.3 million people furloughed) and start to open up their offices, albeit with a reduced capacity. The question still remains about where staff will be expected to conduct their work. This blog outlines some of the observations I’ve had over the last few months and speculates as to how this virus will enable a significant shift in where we work and our work commute patterns.

I do think it is unlikely that there will be a return to the commuting patterns pre-covid. This has numerous implications for businesses that accommodate staff in offices, businesses that are located to service historic worker populations, support the journey to and from work, and also how we utilise our home space.

Our 2020 Location Planning and Customer Insight Practitioners’ Salary Survey (collected pre-covid in January 2020) indicated that flexible working is on the increase, from 68% in 2018 to 71% in 2020. Working from home has significantly increased, from 58% in 2018 to 69% of respondents in 2020. It is very likely that these percentages, in our focus industry of Insight and Analytics, will increase when we carry out the survey again in 2022.

The commuter commotion 

I have done this myself and know of hundreds of people who have followed a similar path. As people move through their life-stages there is often a desire to move from renting to getting on the housing ladder and purchasing a property. There tends to be an affordability gap between homes in close proximity to peoples’ work (which are typically city based) forcing first time buyers to look further afield, which results in a longer, more expensive, commute.

Before coronavirus, my Facebook timeline was occasionally littered with complaints from friends’ commuting experiences. They followed a common thread; their commute was a necessary chore, fraught with overcrowded, inconsiderate (and sometimes smelly) people the ‘pleasure’ of which often comes at no small price (which only increases every January!). I read in the Sunday papers the other week that our trains are currently operating with better punctuality than German trains, granted services have been severely curtailed and are operating at less than 50% of capacity, but is it economically viable? This pandemic will change commuter patterns long term and it has the attention of Whitehall officials both from a financial support perspective, where billions are being spent to ensure the transport system remains in operation, to pressure on the transport providers to find new ways of incentivising ‘regular’ passengers.

Pre-lockdown behaviour for those who typically did a 4 or 5 day commute was influenced by company culture and expectation but it was also influenced by the use of rail or tube season tickets. In terms of culture one person I spoke to described it as being made to feel guilty for working from home – this was obviously pre-Covid and I would imagine that this guilt may dissipate to a certain degree post-Covid. On the commute there is normally a cut off (usually between 3-4 commutes a week) that means it’s economically beneficial to switch from individual day passes to weekly, monthly or yearly season tickets. Once you have bought that longer-term ticket you are likely to feel even more compelled to make sure you are using it above the magic number of trips. No one likes to pay for trips that they don’t use.

The train operators will have to (and some have already) introduce more flexible options, such as 3 or 4 day season tickets, and the option for ‘carnet’ style tickets which allow you to bulk buy a set number of journeys per month, quarter or year. Like with many businesses this pandemic may significantly change the business model of the transport providers – which currently ‘penalises’ peak time commuters with high ticket prices for a (largely) poor experience to subsidise the provision of services at off peak times. Regular commuters may be concerned about the price increases that are likely to be implemented in January 2021 given the volumes of passengers will unlikely return to previous numbers.

Redress the balance for working mums 

It has been a well-documented frustration of mine that our industry has not been very good at retaining working mums. Some mothers find it hard to justify continuing in their employment if they are expected to do a full commute, particularly if that commute is lengthy as they have moved to a place in the suburbs that is more affordable and offers better schooling options. I know it is getting easier in terms of parents sharing the parental burden and the traditional role of the male as the ‘main breadwinner’ is thankfully changing. Businesses can also help by being more flexible in their expectations and to show willing and more understanding of the impact a commute has on young mothers who have to often juggle two full time roles.

The Head/Support office

This pandemic has certainly challenged thinking about the future role of offices as a place to work.

Offices should be a place to promote corporate values, provide a meeting place for clients and suppliers and somewhere to foster collaboration between colleagues.

Covid-compliance for offices contains some fairly stringent guidance which will certainly impact offices in terms of occupancy, cleaning and layout.

 Working Safely during COVID-19 in offices and contact centres

Download Working Safely during COVID-19 in offices and contact centres

Companies have always had an obligation to provide a safe work environment for their employees.  The above guidance states that “no-one is obliged to work in an unsafe work environment” particularly in relation to a potentially fatal virus.  This will mean that there will be a shift in emphasis to an individual assessment of whether working in an office poses an acceptable level of risk, coupled with the individual’s role/function and their ability to perform to the expected level in either an office or home environment.  Other changes are at force which are driven by technology.  The main driver is the increase in broadband speeds to residential areas (granted there is still great variability depending on how near you are to a switch or exchange) meaning that the office is no longer the only place to find fast connectivity speeds.  Most households that have teenage children (including mine) will see an immediate increase in their bandwidth when schools are able to open at capacity.  Mobile computing means that most office tasks can be carried out securely and efficiently from home. Connectivity software such as Zoom, Skype, and Teams etc. means that we can connect with distributed colleagues in a variety of manners. 

For those of us used to working in collaborative office environments the lockdown has certainly been a challenge and most people miss (and crave) that face-to-face engagement with colleagues.  Humans are naturally social animals and despite the fantastic features with these connectivity tools, it’s never quite the same as being in the same room as someone. As confidence improves and measures are eased it is all about finding a balance that works for both the company and the individual. 

Businesses with central offices, reliant in the main on public transport for staff to get in, will need to be more flexible about office staffing levels and acceptable hours of work.  This will allow staff to decide on the most appropriate times to commute in order to avoid peak congestion times.  This will help alleviate some of the peak pressure that has been faced by the transport companies and help spread demand to times where there is more capacity. As well as reducing the risk of virus exposure there will also be the benefits of a nicer commute.  It could also result in offices, which will have to operate at reduced capacity, being utilised for more hours of a day.  I could envisage there being two office shifts – one for those who come in early and leave early and one for those who travel later and leave later. Alternatively, people may wish to extend their office hours for the limited days they are in i.e. come in early and leave late. 

Some business are moving completely to remote – given that the second biggest cost after staff costs is usually office rent, I can see why some businesses are doing this.  A close friend of mine who works for a tech business in central London was in the process of moving to a new office as the virus impact took hold.  They have now decided to go completely remote as this significant cost saving could help turn the business around as revenues have been hit by the pandemic.  They will be looking at flexible, cost effective ways to get everyone together at periodic times through the year once it is safe to do so.  One potential challenge with a move to more flexible working is that of clarity in an employment contract and definition of their usual place of work. 

The new town centre use

This section was inspired by an excellent panel discussion a few months ago hosted by Said Business School.  The discussion centred on some of the issues highlighted above in terms of changing commuting patterns, the future role of the office and the opportunity that presents itself as a result for our town centres. The panel talked of a ‘third’ workplace (first being the office, second being home) which is likely to be within a short distance of home, based in some of our smaller towns and cities.  This third space is likely to be flexible, affordable co-working space.  A place where people have a safe and secure working environment with good wi-fi connectivity, private rooms and good drink making facilities! A good example of such facility would be Perch in Bicester (https://www.perchcoworking.co.uk/pioneer-square/).  The major cities often have a range of co-working facilities and there are a number of national providers in this space.  My sense of smaller locations is that these are often local run initiatives.  Perhaps there is a franchise opportunity for a chain of co-working spaces in smaller locations that could leverage the abundance of (retail) space that a lot of our town centres can offer? 

These spaces provide an opportunity to have a break from the home office environment or an alternative to going into the central office for those people that are unable to work from home.  It’s not the same as working with colleagues in an office, unless by chance there is a local cluster of colleagues living near each other, but there are still opportunities for networking and collaboration.  The other benefit would be that it would give a vital footfall boost to some of the smaller towns and cities which could be important to help national and independent retail, service and F&B chains survive this crisis caused by the pandemic.  

There is little doubt that this pandemic will change the way we (workers and companies) evaluate our commuting choices and our workplace locations in the light of pandemic risk.   

I do think there has been a significant psychological impact of the pandemic and a lot of people, myself included, are now caught in two minds.  We crave for some of the freedoms to return but we are also fearful of potential exposure to the virus (regardless of the extremely low probabilities) from doing certain ‘unnecessary’ activities.  This fear will dissipate as we slowly take back some of those lost liberties and gain confidence in our diminishing chances of catching the disease. For me, I’d rather not share a cramped enclosed space with a host of strangers on a tube (regardless of whether they have got masks or not) but still crave going to support my favourite football team in the stadium or going to watch an indoor gig.  

I do think that individuals will want to have greater flexibility in their commuting patterns and caring, trusting organisations will support that to the benefit of all in the move to recovery. 

What are your thoughts? Are you planning and hoping to return to your normal commute and working environment? Think you’ll end up with a blended working structure or would you actually prefer to work from home? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Photo by Visual Tag Mx from Pexels

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Steve Halsall

Steve Halsall

Steve is the founder of Red Tiger Consulting. He has worked in Location Planning for over 20 years – both on the consultancy side and client side. His passion is building successful teams that evolve their capability (skills, software and data) to meet the ever changing requirements of analysis. In his spare time he is mainly kept busy with his two children, falling in and out of love with Liverpool FC and at some point he wants to re-start his golfing ‘career’.

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