Is working from home here to stay in the UK?

What are the true costs of ‘work-from-home’ Britain? Debate still rages over whether we should all be heading back to the office, or whether it is more responsible to stay at home.

Whatever we decide will affect the economy, the businesses we work for and our own productivity and wellbeing. Foreign secretary Dominic Raab declared earlier this month that the economy needs us to go back to work, while the Confederation for British Industry (CBI) has warned that our city centres will become ‘ghost towns’ if workers do not return to their offices.

But many believe working from home is here to stay. Plenty want to continue their WFH lifestyle, and with worries over rising coronavirus cases and problems with testing availability, the dash back to the office doesn’t look like such a good idea.

‘With areas such as the City of London and Midtown Manhattan resembling ghost towns, it’s clear that governments need to find innovative ways to boost the new economy, rather than pining for the old one,’ says Ben Taylor, who founded the HomeWorkingClub.

‘The future of work looks different now, so we need to build around that, not try and push back to a version of “normal” that no longer fits.’

As the battle lines are drawn between the ‘stay-at-homers’ and the ‘office-lovers’, we consider the costs of both and potential economic effects.

The state we’re in 

Statistics suggest that the return to traditional working patterns is quite slow.

At the height of the pandemic, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), almost half of us were doing some work at home. By August, only a third of white-collar workers had returned to the office according to analysis by Morgan Stanley, with UK workers returning far more slowly than counterparts in France and Italy.

Figures from Sky News in late August suggested only one in six of those who had been home working before was back in the office at that point.

The average cost of going to work

Lunches, transport and even retirement cards for colleagues – the cost of working in an office really mounts up.

Every year the true cost of office work includes:
£800 a year on commuting
£154 a year on work clothes and bags
£115 a year on sweets and treats
£114 a year on coffees and teas
£300 on birthday, leaving and retirement cards and gifts
£1,580 on lunch

Sources, Lloyds Bank, Nationwide Building Society, New York Bakery Co.

Studies show that many of us don’t wish to go back, with a recent survey from the HomeWorkingClub showing that one in three who can’t work from home now are planning to change job so that they can. 88% of those surveyed believe the working world had changed forever, with 90% saying that the Covid-19 pandemic has removed barriers to working remotely.

But our decision to do this changes the way we spend, and has a knock-on effect for local businesses. Sandwich chain Pret A Manger has already announced that it will have to cut 3,000 jobs in the UK.

Meanwhile, business analyst Keith Bowman, from Interactive Investor, reckons that less-central businesses, such as pastry chain Greggs, could benefit from a less city-centric workforce.

‘A diverse location of stores, some near to industrial estates and less impacted than offices, work to its advantage,’ he says.

Similarly, while owners of big office spaces may struggle, those who offer smaller co-working businesses may benefit, as customers hire event space or desks on a less permanent basis near to home.

Beth Hampson, who runs London co-working space provider The Argyll Group, says business is brisk.

‘We’ve seen use of our day offices rise significantly, as well as the number of professionals renting dedicated desks in the city. It’s typically been teams of four or five people convening in meeting rooms, or one-on-one sessions taking place in business lounges.

‘It boils down to relationships. People really want to work with their colleagues again, not via Zoom or over the phone, but in real life, and they’re using safe spaces to do so.’

We catch up with a number of business owners to find out how their working preferences have changed.

Scrapping the office is hard on the young

Jimmy Williams, CEO of insurance group Urban Jungle has already got half of his staff working back in the office and looks forward to it being back at full strength. He says that while working from home is popular with older owner-occupiers, it’s a hard ask for ‘Generation Rent’, who make up the bulk of the firm’s 200,000 customers  and staff.

He says: ‘I don’t think scrapping the office is a good thing for a lot of younger staff. They tend to live in quite small flats or shared houses in town, and these aren’t always great for home working. They also like the sociability of being in a workplace. We have a lot of parties and social events, and it’ll be great to be doing a lot of those things again.

‘I know that a lot of larger tech companies, like Twitter, have said that they’re ditching the office and the entire team are going to work remotely. But I don’t think that would work for us at Urban Jungle. We are a challenger brand and there’s a sense that we are storming the castle.

‘Because of this, I think building a sense of team is really important. We need to be together under the same roof some of the time to build that sense of togetherness. We have  a good company culture and I don’t want that to slip away.’

Pros on office life

Not everyone agrees that home working is the way forward. James Thurlow at Reliable Skip, a skip hire company, says he has found it ‘incredibly isolating’.

He explains: ‘Personally, I can’t wait to return to the office once I feel more comfortable that it’s safe to do so. Living and working in the same space feels incredibly monotonous and anti-social.’

Big business decisions to move out of city centre working have a broader impact, and it doesn’t just affect businesses like Pret.

‘Many of the businesses impacted are small, those that sit around busy centres, such as cafés, dry cleaners, and more,’ says Small Business Britain’s Michelle Ovens. ‘These businesses need to urgently look at adapting, new revenue streams and finding an alternative as there is little likelihood of the UK returning to pre-Covid footfall in the near future.’

‘Humans need to work together and be together. If companies do start ditching their office completely to save money because they’ve realised home working can actually work then I fear we will lose out in lots of ways,’ says Jamie Hinton at Razor.

‘When people say to me that the office is dead, I am not convinced. Yes, home working can support wellbeing for the right person at the right time, but long-term? Do we really think that four months limited, face-to-face interaction will override six million years of evolution?’

‘I would always choose people over an office’

Charlotte Nichols is the owner of content management and PR agency Harvey & Hugo. Their Darlington office had nine staff working there before. Charlotte says working from home has afforded her colleagues a better work/life balance and giving up the office seemed a sensible solution to deal with spiralling costs at a difficult time.

She says: ‘Working from home had been going really well for us. The lease on our office came up in August, so we decided to give notice. In uncertain times, I wanted to protect the people within my business, and if I had to choose between a salary and an office, I’d always keep the people. To me, that’s not a difficult choice to make.

‘Increased productivity due to lack of commuting or travel to meetings means more flexible hours are possible to work around school runs, midday walks and even getting household tasks completed, such as vacuuming or putting washing on the line, freeing up weekends for family time  and hobbies.

‘We are naturally set up for remote working, thanks to laptops and online programmes such as Teams, meaning communication is as strong as it ever was.

‘Each month, I host two half-day sessions in venues around the area so we can connect in person. These give us a chance to catch up and bond as  a team. It also means we’re still supporting restaurants, hotels and other venues to help the economy.’

Pros of homeworking

For many businesses, shifting the majority of workers to home office life has advantages. An obvious one is cost, with companies on flexible leases able to give up their offices. With office space costing up to £18,000 a year for a one-person workstation in the most expensive parts of London, this represents a significant saving.

Many also prefer home working.

Stephen Joyce, director of Human Resources for housing association Your Housing Group, says staff have now ‘found their groove’ working from home. The company has 550 of its 1,100 staff at home, and is moving to home-working contracts for many of them.

‘The benefits of less commuting and enhanced work/life balance are absolutely clear. We’ve made lots of provision for people working at home with different needs – from provision of office furniture, to IT solutions that support colleagues with visual impairments.’

Employees are also saving on commuting costs, lunch and work clothes. The box below, left shows some of the costs of office working borne by employees. Those working from home also often spend more money in their communities.

Laurence Coady, chairman of remote-working technology group Richmond Systems says the key is getting the attitude right. ‘I’ve always had the mindset that work is something you do, not somewhere you go.’

‘I am saving time and money’

Afsaneh Parvizi-Wayne runs femtech companies Freda and Modern Menopause . After working from home, she never wants things to go back to how they were.

‘I save around 2.5 hours of commute time every day and around £10 a day on buying my sandwich and a couple of drinks,’ she says.

‘I have the flexibility of working the hours that suit the business and me. I work in different time zones and therefore can start later and answer emails later if I had to. I get to walk my dog early in the morning before work, and Honey, my cockapoo, makes sure I take the breaks I need with her wanting to go in the garden, etc.

‘My tips are: allocate one area in your home as your working space and stick to it. I’m lucky that we have a box room which is now my office and I love it. I have it organised exactly as I want it. I never want to go back.’

A hybrid approach

Many experts believe the best solution is a mixture of both home and office working. Construction data business NBS is one company pioneering this type of approach.

‘We have been bringing the staff back to the office from September 14 and that will be done in two cohorts,’ says Richard Waterhouse, chief strategy officer at NBS.

‘So, in order to create a safe working environment and social distancing, we will bring one cohort in on a Monday and Tuesday, and another on Thursday and Friday, with the Wednesday used to give the office a thorough clean between those two groups.

‘We believe that this approach is viable for a long period of time. We’ve operated very effectively as a remote business. But it’s nearly six months now since we moved out of the office and we miss the social side of work as well as the business side.

‘So, we are giving our staff the option to get the best of both worlds.’

‘My new office saves my sanity’

Lockdown drove Lynsey Pollard,  who runs a subscription business, back to office life.

‘I’ve been working from home since I launched the business in 2018. My partner is an IT consultant and also works from home,’ she explains.

‘During lockdown, like everyone, we did everything in our flat. We have an almost-two-year-old and a seven-year-old, so it was pretty intense. Our living room was filled with boxes, books, wrapping paper and mailbags, and we were stepping over books to get into bed. We couldn’t escape from it.

‘When restrictions eased, my priority was to look for office space, and luckily one came up, three streets away from our flat, in a shared studio space.

‘We carted everything over the road, emptied our flat and now leave the house to go to work every morning to go to the office, where we see lots of other people, all renting office space, can chat over a cup of tea and aren’t only seeing each other.

‘We are spending more quality time with our children and are being so much more productive now we have a place designated for work, with the added bonus of being able to pop back whenever we need to.’

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