RTW v WFH – The debate raging amongst office occupiers in the streets of London


We’re currently involved with numerous London office occupiers helping them address the implications of returning to work (“RTW”) alongside an expectation of more staff working from home (“WFH”).

After hosting webinars Part 1 & Part 2 to look at early responses to the pandemic we are now seeing occupiers trickling back to offices (heavily adapted for Covid safety) . Though in a cautious and phased way and real analysis will have to wait until  August holidays are over. As but one example in BBG’s multi-occupied (sic) office building there is currently 15% -20% occupancy on any given day.

After a long ,long twenty two weeks of lockdown motivations for staff to re-visit the office vary.  A simple change of scene counts for some whilst the facilities and general set up of the office can contrast with a lack of physical space or adequate connectivity / IT at home. The challenge and compromises of occupying and entertaining feral offspring during school holidays have proved stressful for many as have the constraints of shielding and isolating .

The collaborative and motivational benefits of the office are missed by employers and employees alike . For example team tasks can be achieved more quickly in the office and often with more flair than over a Zoom call. Training and integration of staff is often easier in an appropriately distanced face to face setting whilst the life-affirming humour and banter of an office can be hard to replicate from home.

Conversely the transmission risk from using crowded public transport is still a major factor deterring the RTW. Though some view the risk as being lessened by staggered commuting hours , adherence to wearing face masks and lower commuter numbers allowing easier social distancing.

The debate has most recently occupied the leader page (23/8/20) of The Sunday Times quoting a leading accountancy practice and finance house deferring a full return to work for the indefinite future.  Some IT sector occupiers are reporting no significant drop off in productivity . Professionals working on hourly rates such as solicitors and accountants have been reporting an increase in the number of billable hours as commuting time has reduced. However in a City where there are over 1.1m small and medium size enterprises our expectation is that the answers may lie more with the intentions of those SMEs and will be sector specific. One clear expectation is for an increase in the amount of available office space and we have been very busy analysing client’s ability to release surplus space whilst also retaining sufficient capacity for safe distancing.

The imminent return to school will help inform the debate and we’ll therefore return to the subject in September. In the meantime a recent article in The Wall Street Journal addresses the evolving issues:-

Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn’t So Great After All  

Projects take longer. Collaboration is harder. And training new workers is a struggle. ‘This is not going to be sustainable.’

By Chip Cutter for The Wall Street Journal

July 24, 2020 11:10 am ET

Four months ago, employees at many U.S. companies went home and did something incredible: They got their work done, seemingly without missing a beat. Executives were amazed at how well their workers performed remotely, even while juggling child care and the distractions of home. Twitter Inc. TWTR +0.75% and Facebook Inc., among others, quickly said they would embrace remote work long term. Some companies even vowed to give up their physical office spaces entirely.

Now, as the work-from-home experiment stretches on, some cracks are starting to emerge. Projects take longer. Training is tougher. Hiring and integrating new employees, more complicated. Some employers say their workers appear less connected and bosses fear that younger professionals aren’t developing at the same rate as they would in offices, sitting next to colleagues and absorbing how they do their jobs.

Months into a pandemic that rapidly reshaped how companies operate, an increasing number of executives now say that remote work, while necessary for safety much of this year, is not their preferred long-term solution once the coronavirus crisis passes.

“There’s sort of an emerging sense behind the scenes of executives saying, ‘This is not going to be sustainable,’” said Laszlo Bock, chief executive of human-resources startup Humu and the former HR chief at Google. No CEO should be surprised that the early productivity gains companies witnessed as remote work took hold have peaked and leveled off, he adds, because workers left offices in March armed with laptops and a sense of doom.Tape helps to enforce distancing measures at the Chef Robotics office.

“It was people being terrified of losing their jobs, and that fear-driven productivity is not sustainable,” Mr. Bock said.

Few companies expect remote work to go away in the near term, though the evolving thinking among many CEOs reflects a significant shift from the early days of the pandemic.

“You can tell people are getting fatigued,” said Peter P. Kowalczuk, president of Canon Solutions America, a division of copier and camera giant Canon Inc., which employs about 15,000 people across the country.

Mr. Kowalczuk, who worked for months out of a bedroom in his home, went back to Canon’s U.S. headquarters in Melville, N.Y., in early July. Now, no more than 50% of the company’s employees are coming into work at the 52-acre office campus, which features two ponds and a walking trail, and typically includes approximately 1,500 staffers in a single building.

Returning is voluntary, Mr. Kowalczuk said, and requires answering a series of health questions on an app the company created, called Check-In Online, before getting approval to drive in. The company has also blocked off desks to allow for greater distancing, stepped up cleaning and created a rotating schedule so that staffers come in on alternating weeks.

To discuss your company’s plans for a RTW and for advice on implications for your office needs please contact David Alcock


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