Stuart Sykes, Chief Operating Officer at Oblix Capital considers how normal business practice might change once the Covid-19 lockdown is eased.

The Covid-19 crisis could change attitudes to working practices forever for both businesses, and employees. People are relishing the cleaner air, increased wildlife and closer sense of community created by the social isolation rules, and are seeing other benefits of working from home – including less time travelling to and from work, reduced travel costs (and reduced emissions), more time with loved ones in the evening, and opportunities to exercise during the day. The adoption of any new working practices will, however, have as much of an impact on employers as it does employees.

The case for remote working has been proven

As the Covid-19 lockdown was coming onstream in March, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published data showing that 4.0 million people had been working from home the week before the survey was undertaken. 8.7 million said they had worked from home at some time in the past, but only 1.7 million people said they normally worked from home – that’s just 5.1% of the working population. Considering the ongoing and rapid advances in technology, that’s a very small increase from the 4.3% that normally worked from home in 2015.

The crisis means that technology such as Zoom and Teams for online chats, meetings and webinars has been tested in anger in huge volumes and has, on the whole, proven to be more than up to the job. Zoom use has rocketed from 10 million to over 200 million per day, whilst Teams has passed more than 44 million uses per day.

Changes to ‘the norm’

The technologies and behaviours that have been adopted during the crisis will shape our everyday working practices, and we will see the continued development of new systems that modernise and automate existing processes, further facilitating remote and flexible working. Better facilitation does not necessarily mean that remote working will become ‘the norm’ for all everyone, however. Successful businesses understand that regular face-to-face contact is essential in order to build and maintain a strong culture, and to maximise teamwork.

Whilst the technology is certainly available for employees to work remotely more frequently than before, regulation and legislation also needs to catch up. Document signing, which is traditionally face to face has been relaxed during the crisis can be completed remotely using various applications. This is a temporary measure however, and ‘wet signatures’ are still required moving forward, slowing the pace of applications for borrowers. Legislation needs to catch up with this modern, fast paced and technological world in order for us to be truly ‘mobile’.

From a governance perspective, one important impact of the crisis might be around Business Continuity Plans (BCPs); whilst prudent businesses will have always had a BCP, these are likely to be tested more frequently than they have been in the past, and expanded to include several different working practice scenarios.

When some sense of normality returns, the fragile state of the economy and the threat of unemployment will be at the front of employers’ minds; businesses were already facing uncertainties prior to the crisis, not least because of Brexit. Options for managing operational costs will need to be considered, for example the adoption of more flexible working practices could help to reduce office space requirements, or a switch to serviced office space might be an alternative that some seriously consider.

Implications on the demand for office space

In 2018, Savoy Stewart estimated that there were just over 89,000,000 square meters of office space in England and Wales – that’s 12,284 Wembley football pitches. The amount of spare office space in the UK was low prior to the crisis, as evidenced by a Savills report published last year which showed that office vacancy rates in London were predicted to be just 6% at the end of 2019. Unfortunately business failures, reductions in staffing, and the adoption of flexible working practices after the crisis are likely to mean that this vacancy rate will start to climb.