- Last week, the UK government abruptly reversed its ‘back to work’ campaign by once again advising people in England to work from home.
- The advice has triggered a sudden slowdown in people and companies using their office space.
- The announcement has also dealt a devastating blow to the flexible workspace industry in the UK.
Last week, the UK government abruptly reversed its ‘back to work’ campaign by once again advising people in England to work from home. The measures are an attempt to reduce the UK’s sharp rise in COVID-19 cases and prevent more serious restrictions in the future.
“We are once again asking office workers who can work from home to do so,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on 22nd September. Unless progress is made, the restrictions could stay in place for six months.
The advice has triggered a sudden slowdown in people and companies using their office space. This in turn is damaging the recovery and outlook for flexible offices around the country.
New client enquiries “immediately ceased”
In a letter sent to the Chancellor of the Exchequer by FlexSA (formerly the BCA), Executive Director Jane Sartin stated:
“The Prime Minister’s statement on Tuesday 22nd September was a devastating blow to the flexible workspace industry. Its effect was to urge our customers to stay away for the next 6 months.
“Our industry is seeing customers leave in unprecedented numbers, and the recent early signs of new clients as some sought a different type of business space has of course
immediately ceased. Additional income from activities such as meeting room hire and catering is also lost.”
FlexSA has called on its members to join the campaign and lobby for two key outcomes:
- A 12 month Business Rates holiday for flexible workspaces, which has already been given to the retail, hospitality and leisure business.
- Guidance to work from home to be regularly reviewed, rather than left in place for the next 6 months.
According to FlexSA, the majority of flexible workspaces are remaining open, as many have key worker businesses amongst their customers who need constant access to their workplace.
Concerns over mental health for home-based workers
Giles Fuchs, CEO of Office Space in Town, says that the u-turn is particularly concerning given that safe workplaces are vital to economic recovery and individual wellbeing.
“Having worked with the Business Secretary on the development of the Government’s back to work blueprint earlier this year, I can say with the utmost confidence that a safe return to the office that limits the spread of COVID-19 is not only vital for the survival of British businesses, but readily achievable.”
Fuchs questions the productivity of working from home, citing ONS research that found a rapid decline in productivity in Q2, with output per worker declining by almost a fifth compared to the previous quarter.
More worrying is the decline of workers’ mental health, which is largely attributed to the effects of working from home including isolation, a lack of boundary between work and home, stress, and burnout.
Suggested Reading: The Current State of Remote Work and its Impact on Wellbeing
Supporting recent research by the Mental Health Foundation, a survey by OSiT found that:
- Almost a third of people cited loneliness as the main disadvantage of remote working
- 25% of workers reported feelings of anxiety
- 37% of people reported being unable to unplug from work, raising serious risk of burnout for team members based at home.
“The rising silent impact of home working on mental health should give serious cause for concern,” said Fuchs, adding that it raises questions over how employers can effectively protect the mental and physical health of their remote workforce.
Huge investment in COVID-safe measures
Another concern for workplace operators is the long-term financial impact on their businesses, especially now that huge investment in safety measures — such as screens and temperature screening — have already been made.
“Six months from now, will all that expensive Covid-secure kit even be necessary?” said Liz Hamson at Property Week.
“How can people be expected to work from home for another six months? […] It wouldn’t be such a blow if office occupiers and owners hadn’t wasted so much money, time and energy ensuring their offices were safe to return to – having been urged to do so by government.”
While workplaces continue to remain open for the most part, the bigger problem is that occupiers now lack the confidence and motivation to come back to work.
“It’s really going to deter people who can work remotely like me,” Colliers research director Guy Grantham, whose West End agency office is running at about 20% occupancy, told Anviksha Patel. “Some people have been coming in on a piecemeal basis, but they’ll probably stop doing that.”
As BE Offices’ co-founder Simon Rusk noted in a recent interview with Allwork.Space (which took place before the government’s announcement on 22nd September), working from home prevents the type of interaction and communication that teams and businesses thrive on.
“The average age of our team is mid-twenties. Unless they come back in, it’s easy to forget how to work as a team, how to be in an office and interact with people. It starts to fall away.”
Ensuring collaboration and personal development are not lost
Rusk also noted that it has a negative impact on company culture.
“Working from home does not create corporate culture, in fact that’s how you lose it. People become narrow-focused, they focus purely on the job in front of them, on the screen, but their role and responsibility is actually way more than that.”
With the majority of flexible workspaces remaining open, the choice over whether or not to use the space is now in the hands of clients and members.
Given the adverse effects of working from home, including the associated mental health concerns, productivity decline, and trouble accessing standard working facilities — which depending on an individual’s living conditions, can be as basic as a quiet space to work with adequate furniture and reliable WiFi — it’s entirely possible that workers will now vote with their feet and head back to their workplace to maintain social contact and keep their businesses moving forwards.
“COVID-19 compliant office spaces are one of the safest locations for workers,” added Fuchs, “importantly ensuring that the community, collaboration and critical in-person development opportunities the office alone provides are not lost to this generation of workers.”