The Future of Work (and everything else): Observations from the UK

Office Life – A European Angle

COVID-19 has affected workers across the globe in different ways. This essay is a reflection on current working dynamics for office workers from a European perspective. 

The world continues to turn.  After a short initial stall and some occasional supply chain interruptions, the construction industry soon got going again.  International freight by sea and air has continued.  Global politics even got to party, with this summer’s G7 meeting taking place in sunny Cornwall whilst the vast majority of Europeans remained on some form of restricted travel mandate.  For many, working in what has become a universally adopted office model 2020 presented a stark and sudden interruption to routine.  Working from home became the new normal and, 18 months later, working patterns are still changed for many, especially those working in the professional services sector.

So, what is happening now and where are we heading?

In the UK, after 15 months of the Government mantra “work from home if you can,” most businesses large and small went into “planning stage” in terms of what the new “agile working environment” will look like post-COVID.  During June 2021, the City of London, the central business district for London, saw daily office worker numbers at around 20% of pre-COVID levels.  But then there was a “glass half full” optimism and talk of a gradual increase across the demographic of these traditionally high-paid, high-skilled City workers.  By August, office worker numbers had not significantly increased but the prediction for the autumn is that numbers will continue to rise.

Working from home remains largely something enjoyed by those in the higher skilled and higher paid roles.  Many businesses have already made it clear that office workers in support and other roles must return to work.  Large banks need people working in offices for security reasons and other businesses with perhaps less skilled workforces are seemingly enforcing a return to work in many industry areas.   

It is tricky to generalize within and across the myriad of industry types utilizing offices but attitudes, expectations and requirements have most certainly changed and perhaps it is legal and other professional services firms where that change is most evident, with most big law firms reporting less than 30% of pre-COVID office occupancy.

During the summer of 2021, the professional service sector widely adopted the following assessment criteria for now and the future:

  1. What is right for their people? (Of course, all professional services firms are just that)
  2. What opportunities are there to rationalize and optimize the existing real estate portfolio and commitments?
  3. What opportunities are there to maximize the opportunities afforded by offices?

Talk, talk – everyone is an expert now …

We now hear that business leaders have to take responsibility for developing the careers of the young professionals and maintain a firm culture in which people want to stay and develop.  This is clearly not easy to do on a permanent work-from-home basis.

In the UK, we hear stories of home working leading to a lack of camaraderie and an inability to make new friendships at work and develop business-networking relationships leading to some levels of social anxiety.

We are told that whilst a significant number of fee-revenue-generating staff have done better during COVID, the majority have taken a big productivity dip.  In other words, in some cases the minority of overachievers is masking the underperformance of a majority.

According to some, contrary to populist thinking it is the extroverts who are tackling working from home better than introverts are.  The Zoom call pressure to turn your camera on is real and challenging for some.  But then we hear positive stories of international conferences giving way to Zoom meetings making it easier for those with family commitments (often women) to compete on a leveled playing field, in contrast to the pre-COVID travel-dependent (often male-dominated) conference circuit.

There is a lot of guessing surrounding what the daily office return numbers will be like come late 2021 – some say 30%, others closer to 50%.  There is differing opinion over the timeline both in Europe and beyond.  But what is clear is that office real estate will remain relevant but when teams do come back together and when workers do come to the office it is a logical imperative on leaders to ensure the experience is a positive one.

The problem is compounded by the fact that senior business leaders are overall more bound to the office environment than their junior workforces are.  In law firms and other professional firms, this bias may be strengthened by business leaders having a personal ownership stake in long-term office real estate plans, which overall did not cater for the likely effect of a global pandemic.  In fact, prior to COVID office layouts gurus almost universally pushed the boundaries and “benefits” of open plan office environments.    

People talk of three-day “in office” weeks and plans for mandatory testing if workers choose to not be vaccinated.  We see headline articles about often-regarded “most modern and dynamic” tech companies like Apple and Google struggling to come to terms with a displaced workforce whilst most big law firms by contrast are posting record results notwithstanding most of their talent are now still working from home.

Towards a new expectation for office use?

The days of professional offices as “work cells” where workers work with “heads down” was always slowly receding, but COVID has seemingly accelerated the change for many businesses. It seems logical now to see offices as places for professional development and places to collaborate and develop skills to better serve clients rather than places to test or control worker productivity.  The best pro-office arguments heard recently perhaps relate to worker development, mentoring and networking.  The all-important small talk in the corridor leads to relationship development and, eventually, career development.  Junior workers do not tend to reach out informally to leaders in a formalized work-from-home setting but find it easier to make connections informally within the office.

Finally, given the uncertainty faced with pandemic and post-pandemic working we must be mindful of the different needs of individuals within teams and recognize that what works for one worker might not work for another.  On the flip side, what works for one business might be bad for another.  People and businesses will have choices, and how those choices are made will, it seems, be pivotal for business large and small.  Perhaps by communicating and leading our teams with a consultative “heads up” rather than a dictatorial “heads down” attitude, our businesses will emerge stronger and more together whilst maintaining the all-needed agility to navigate obstacles and changes ahead.

Could this be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to adapt our ways of doing business whilst keeping individuals at the heart of things no matter what the size of any given team or firm or organization?  Law and accountancy firms are rarely seen as game-changing innovators but just perhaps these super-profitable firms may actually find themselves possessed with the intellectual and cultural capital to lead the change on this towards a tailored, rather than a one-size-fits-all, approach.

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