August 2020

This song by The Clash reminded me of several conversations I have had with client CEOs and journalists over the last few days.

There seems to be a “back to school” mentality emerging with the novelty of video conferencing wearing thin. Some find the technology deeply frustrating and no substitute for face-to-face meetings. This, combined with acute webinar fatigue and more people saying they are missing colleague interaction and the general office buzz, is leading to thoughts of ‘going back’.

Whilst the majority admit they don’t miss the commute and some have used this ‘bonus’ time constructively, they genuinely miss the camaraderie of an office environment.

The UK seems to be the slowest country in Europe to return. Data from Morgan Stanley suggests, in spite of the PM’s best endeavours to encourage a return to work, only 34% of UK office workers are back, lagging Italy, France, and Germany where 70% to 83% have returned to their desks. Of course, there will be those who have had this decision made for them as they have been victims of this evolving economic catastrophe and have sadly been made redundant, over 136,000 at the time of writing and this figure is only going to go in one direction. Only today, high street stalwart M&S announced that it would shed over 7,000 jobs as a result of the pandemic.

So, whilst the working week might not be the same post-Covid, do we not owe it to those businesses who rely on offices being busy for their livelihoods to go back? In our area of the City many of these shops, hairdressers, bars and restaurants are not only there to look after us but are an integral and valued part of the working community, some family-owned businesses have been there for decades. It would be a travesty if they disappeared. Sadly, there is already a horrible inevitably that some will never re-open. Last week, global asset manager Schroders announced that it will allow thousands of staff to permanently work from home as it abandons the traditional nine-to-five working week. Others will surely follow.

For many of course, the issue isn’t being in the office per se, but rather getting there – hundreds of thousands of people on packed trains and tubes making commutes potentially risky isn’t an attractive prospect. But once the children return to school, the summer comes to an end, the nights pull in and we are once again forced inside – the prospect of a few days in the office and some more ‘normal’ might become more appealing.

Some companies are already actively encouraging people back, with shorter working days and running 50/50 parallel teams in the office at any one time.

Of course, all businesses differ and much will depend on the size and the adaptability of their office workspace. The logistics of getting thousands of employees in and out of a Canary Wharf skyscraper will be rather more challenging than more traditional office spaces. French hotel group, Accor which owns the Savoy as well as brands such as Ibis, is letting out hotel rooms to businesses as one solution. So, for those who don’t want to or find it difficult to work from home but want the discipline of going to work as well as being well located for face-to-face meetings, it’s an interesting Plan-B option.

There is no doubt that the plethora of video meeting platforms (I’ve had to use more than five) will become a permanent fixture, and for many they have and will considerably reduce travelling times and costs for many businesses. But we are social creatures and it really isn’t a substitute for the real thing, particularly if it’s an initial ‘get to know’ or relationship building meeting. As Clare Foges in The Times said: “Please let tech-distancing be for the pandemic, not for life.”

I for one am looking forward to a little bit of office ‘normal’ in the not too distant future and re-engaging with colleagues and contacts. Although the Savoy option does sound interesting!