Lancashire Times
A Voice of the North
2:55 AM 18th October 2020

Saturday Essay: Could Covid-19 Mean The End For Office Working?

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash
Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash
Nic Redfern, Financial Director for Know Your Money considers the future of office working

In a world where self-isolation and social distancing is now the norm, most office workers have not seen their desks for quite some time. And they are unlikely to any time soon.

As the coronavirus pandemic rapidly spread at the start of the year, office workers around the world were no longer able to go into the office, and this has necessitated an almost overnight shift to remote working practices, with employees everywhere swapping desks for kitchen tables.

But even prior to the pandemic, the introduction of more flexible working practices had been on the rise for quite some time. Increasingly, employers have been adopting a more flexible approach to working, offering their staff greater autonomy over their working hours, or providing the option to work remotely on a regular basis, for example.

Tellingly, the pandemic has accelerated this trend. A recent survey has revealed that the lockdown period saw just under half (49%) of the country’s workforce up sticks and make the move to full-time home working.

As lockdown measures began to ease, in June the Government began to encourage employees to go back into the office. But with mounting concerns about the threat of a second spike in coronavirus cases, in late-September Prime Minister Boris Johnson took a U-turn on this advice. Once again, the UK workforce were advised to work from the safety of their homes wherever possible in order to help curb the spread of the virus.

Clearly, remote working is here to stay. And with large organisations such as Facebook and Twitter committing to letting their staff work remotely forever, if they so choose, other organisations are likely to follow suit.

This trend coincides with another: that of financial difficulty, which has become common for businesses across the UK. And together these two topics raise some interesting questions, most notably around the financial considerations – and implications – of remote working.

With their resources under strain, many business leaders are facing a sudden need to cut costs if their organisation is to survive the pandemic. For many, this might mean considering a longer-term move to remote working practices. So, what factors should businesses bear in mind before taking the leap?

Considering potential savings

It goes without saying that renting an office typically comes with a significant price tag for businesses. From the cost of the space itself, to maintaining, cleaning and kitting it out with the appropriate furniture and tech for staff to do their jobs effectively, expenses can quickly spiral.

As such, many businesses might be considering the prospect of eradicating office working altogether, allowing their staff to work remotely on a permanent basis where there are savings to be made. Indeed, the days of cramming hundreds of people into a building may now be a thing of the past; recent research has uncovered that 70% of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the UK were making savings of up to £840 per month by working remotely throughout the lockdown period. As rental contracts are exited, this figure could rise sharp in the months ahead.

As a result, it is unsurprising that many businesses are keen to capitalise on these savings by continuing to work from home in the future, with 45% of SMEs stating that they believe their business would benefit from reduced office space in the long term.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash
Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash
Ensuring staff have what they need

Although there are notable savings to be made from culling office space, businesses should remember that making long-lasting changes is not as simple as just cutting costs on rent. Indeed, making the switch to remote working practices might mean that businesses incur other costs; for example, it is important organisations ensure their staff have the appropriate equipment and technology in place to facilitate effective working.

It is true that for some, particularly those requiring few resources to complete their daily tasks, the transition to working from home might have been seamless. They took their laptop home and the next day they were ready to go.

But as some workers ordinarily use multiple screens, or require access to large quantities of confidential data, the switch to home working might have presented some more challenges. Businesses should therefore ensure their staff have all they need to get on with their work as usual, whether this is a high-speed laptop, or something as simple as a comfortable desk chair.

One such resource that businesses should not forget is adequate cybersecurity software. Even at the best of times, data breaches are a key concern for organisations with access to high volumes of sensitive data, and robust cybersecurity is required to mitigate any risks. But with staff now accessing their work from home, via different connections and potentially on different devices, these concerns will be compounded. Businesses must therefore take the all of the necessary precautions to avoid any compromised data.

As things currently stand, it seems like many companies have overlooked this all-important factor. Indeed, a recent study has revealed that almost half (48%) of UK businesses acknowledge that they do not have adequate cybersecurity structures in place to facilitate remote working permanently. And as data breaches cost UK businesses an estimated £2.48 million per instance, companies would do well to invest in this technology to avoid costly consequences in the future.

Importantly, however, it is not just a matter of paying for the right tech. When deliberating over a permanent move to home-working, businesses will inevitably incur other costs so that their staff can work from home safely and efficiently, such as investing in home-office furniture, remote IT support, and even couriers to deliver equipment. It is therefore vital organisations ensure they have the necessary funds to do so.

Safeguarding staff welfare

With all of this in mind, it is safe to say that for some companies, the switch to remote working will be more costly than expected. But financial implications to one side, businesses should also dedicate the same care and diligence when considering the welfare of their staff.

For many, the move to working from home has presented a welcome change, offering additional flexibility and refuge from the stress of the daily commute. Understandably, though, some employees will be reluctant to make work a permanent presence in their homes, or they might miss the collaborative office environment. Every employee is different, and naturally, some members of staff will struggle with the prospect of making remote working a permanent fixture.

Image by judyback from Pixabay
Image by judyback from Pixabay
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a recent survey revealed that over one in five (22%) employees working from home struggle to “switch off” at the end of the day. A further 19% struggle with feelings of loneliness while working from home, while 17% miss interacting with their colleagues.

There are a number of measures businesses can put in place to help mitigate feelings of isolation and ensure staff remain connected. For example, managers would do well to check in regularly to see if their staff are coping well, allowing them to raise any concerns, or organise team socials in order to boost morale. Whatever businesses decide, the wellness of their staff should be top of their list of concerns.

Weighing up choices

Ultimately, virtually all businesses have made drastic changes during the pandemic – whether these remain a permanent fixture will vary from company to company. However, many employees and business leaders alike will find the changes refreshing, offering some much-needed relief on both the financial front, and in terms of their work-life balance.

Managing this kind of transition, whether working away from the office full-time or part-time, will take some getting used to and will have a major impact on business as usual. But as long as business leaders bear all of the options in mind, they will be well placed to overcome the trials presented by the pandemic.

Nic Redfern is Financial Director for Know Your Money, an independent financial comparison website, launched in 2004. Run by a dedicated team, Know Your Money’s goal is to provide clear, accurate and transparent comparisons for a wide range of financial products, such as business loans, mortgages and car insurance.
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