As firms plan ways to get staff back to the office, it’s becoming apparent the return will be gradual – and businesses will have to plan for new working strategies
Although professional services firms have continued to operate during lockdown, many are sensing now may be the time to cautiously work towards re-opening offices in some fashion.
Yet the recovery is proving bumpy. While UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on 23rd June a broad relaxation of social distancing rules, effective from 4th July , efforts at re-opening elsewhere have stalled. As some US states open up, others have closed their borders to those with surges in infection rates: in Texas, for example, re-opening has been paused.
Even where government restrictions have been loosened, there are still many barriers. In May, Michael Davison, deputy CEO of Hogan Lovells, said it would be “unbelievably fiddly getting people back” into the office, and many other firm leaders have detailed the extensive measures needed to declare offices safe for use.
The necessary restrictions – glass barriers, one-way systems, touchless interfaces – mean occupancy levels will continue to be low. DLA Piper plans to return to its UK offices from 6th July, though visits will be on a purely voluntary basis and occupancy must reach no more than 15% of headcount to comply with social distancing requirements. Many other London firms are looking at similarly low percentages.
Even if firms can safely establish ways to re-open their offices for employees, travelling there is another hurdle. Gowling WLG’s chief operating officer, Andrew Edgington, said in a statement to The Lawyer: “Despite all the positives about returning to the office for wellbeing and socialising purposes, people are still very anxious about the commute.” The firm will prioritise getting its offices operationally-ready for client visits first and, later, will welcome back more employees – if other firms follow suit, it will mean working from home is here to stay for some time.
Clearly, ensuring employees have practicable and safe ways to take advantage of re-opening plans – and consent to them – is also a significant factor.
Out of office: but for how long?
The ‘petri dish’ of the last three months of lockdown has proven an opportunity to test remote working practices. It’s also shown that productivity can remain broadly intact while staff are away from the office; although the statistics vary from country to country, firm to firm and among individuals, the emerging consensus is that remote working has been a success for firms so far. The Lawyer’s recent survey reported that 31% of lawyers felt they were working harder than before, and 33% saying they were managing the same levels of productivity as pre-lockdown. A survey from consultants Eden McCallum even suggests UK businesses have seen increased productivity as a result of working from home.
Firms are also dissatisfied with the response of their landlords during the outbreak. Of all businesses surveyed by CBRE in their flash survey, 63% have been offered no relief and 26% have been but are not yet fully satisfied with the results. While this all suggests that mass remote working is sustainable and desirable in the short-term, it also points to some potential longer-term trends.
The emergence of the HybridOffice
Firms expect the coronavirus lockdown to have had a significant impact on occupancy levels and office space in the long term. Although 58% of those surveyed by CBRE expect no change to their locational footprint after the coronavirus outbreak is over, as much as 40% do expect a rethinking of their physical locations, and a whopping 93% think home working or remote working will accelerate.
Staff seem to be content for that to happen: The Lawyer also reported that almost 52% of those it surveyed would prefer to work at least some of the time from home in the future, and 8% hope to work primarily from home. Similarly, rollonfriday’s survey found 44% of lawyers would like to spend no more than two days in the office after the pandemic.
Of course, most businesses will be tethered to their property for some time. Freshfields is expected to continue with its 20-year lease on new premises in London, beginning in August – but the way it expects to use that office space will likely have changed as a result of lockdown. Re-thinking office usage will be a vital, long-term project for firms, rather than a quick fix. Some, like Slater and Gordon, are already contemplating this new future, with chief executive David Whitmore saying in a statement: “we won’t ever go back to how we worked before.”
Offices aren’t going away, but they’ll never be the same again, either. The future office will be a hybrid one, with staff expecting to move between office and home more seamlessly than ever before. The question is, will firms be up to the task of making their culture, strategy and collaboration methods fit for it?
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