Will we ever return to office working?

By Nic Redfern

It goes without saying that the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about huge changes to the way we live our lives. With the introduction of strict social distancing measures, inevitably this has prompted big adjustments to how we work, with many employees switching their office desk for their kitchen tables.

Although the virus has prompted something of a working from home revolution, changes to working practices have been on the cards for quite some time. With more and more individuals calling for more flexible working, over the past few years, employers were already taking a more forward-looking approach to working hours. Indeed, with many companies introducing flexible working practices, this has allowed employees to have greater autonomy over where and when they work, enabling many to work from home or shift their working hours to accommodate their busy schedules.

However, the national enforcement of lockdown measures back in March of this year has prompted employers to take further steps towards flexible working yet. Certainly, as life as we know it came to a halt, a staggering 49% of the country’s workforce made the move to full-time home working.

With the rate of infection slowing, in June the government began to encourage employers to bring their staff back into the office. But with mounting coronavirus cases and threats of a second spike, the government has backtracked on this advice, and on the 22 September, Prime Minister Boris Johnson once again instructed businesses to keep their staff out of the office where possible.

Indeed, such instructions may lead to employers reconsidering their working practices. Given that office spaces are likely to remain empty for quite some time yet, many employers might weigh up the potential benefits of eradicating office working altogether.

Cutting costs with remote working

It should come as no surprise that renting office space comes with significant financial ramifications for businesses. As a consequence, if business leaders opt to cull office working entirely, substantial savings can be made.

Indeed, the cost of maintaining a suitable working environment is substantial. Altogether, cleaning, rent and utilities all can drain businesses, if not managed carefully. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that cutting these costs could potentially alleviate some financial burdens for employers.

As recent research has revealed, 70% of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have been able to make savings of up to £840 per month by implementing remote working practices throughout the lockdown period. It is perhaps unsurprising that 45% of SMEs believe their business would benefit from the continuation of such practices in the long-term.

The return: Considering office expenses

 Although it is clear that there are great savings to be made by encouraging staff to work remotely going forward, the process is far more nuanced that simply shuttering office space.

Certainly, for some businesses, the switch to long-term flexible working might be relatively simple; for example, if staff are used to relatively simple working arrangements, merely requiring a laptop to get on with their daily tasks, the transition to permanent remote working will be an easy one. But for other businesses, considerations will involve some more careful thought and budgeting to implement.

For companies that rely on their staff to access huge amounts of sensitive data requires regular auditing, or utilise multiple screens to do their job effectively, the switch to home working will be more costly. With couriers, technology maintenance, and remote IT support all to consider, businesses must ensure that additional costs fall within their budget before moving full steam ahead with plans to leave the office behind indefinitely.

In particular, one of the greatest complications that employers might run into is the cost of cyber security. And with most of their workforce completing their daily tasks from their kitchen table, this is no simple task.

As many companies handle confidential data requiring robust security protocols, ensuring this sort of protection is difficult at the best of times, even with staff accessing data via on-premise servers. These security concerns are compounded with employees now accessing the same sensitive data using their own devices at home, adding additional complications to data protection and cyber security procedures. To avoid running into problems therefore, it is vital that businesses have the correct infrastructure in place.

Unfortunately, many companies have overlooked this all-important factor. Indeed, a recent study has revealed that almost half (48%) of UK businesses admit that they do not have an adequate cybersecurity structure in place to facilitate remote working permanently. And as data breaches cost UK businesses an estimated £2.48m per instance, companies can hardly afford not to safeguard their data.

And that’s not all employers will have to consider. When deliberating over a permanent move to home-working, businesses will inevitably incur other expenses, such as investing in home-office furniture for employees.

While in the short-term, setting up camp at their kitchen table might be a workable solution for some, in the long-term, business leaders will need to consider investing in desks and other furniture to ensure staff have all they  need to do their jobs safely and effectively.

Safeguarding staff welfare

Clearly, there are many financial benefits to be gained from flexible working and business leaders might be preoccupied with fiscal concerns arising from any changes. However, it is of vital importance that companies also remember to factor in the wellbeing of their staff.

With employees out of the office, it can be difficult to check in with colleagues, and naturally, all staff will feel differently about the shift to remote working. While some might welcome the prospect of permanent remote working, others might feel differently.

A recent survey has revealed that over one in five (22%) of employees working from home find it difficult to ‘switch off’ at the end of each working day. An additional 19% struggle with feelings of loneliness working from home, meanwhile a further 17% have stated that they miss interacting with their fellow colleagues.

It is evident that companies should focus their efforts and resources on building strong support networks, whether that be scheduling regular calls to ensure employees are coping well with the changes, or virtual team socials to keep up the staff morale.

Ensuring clear communication

Another complication that might emerge with the switch to working from home is maintaining a consistent dialogue with colleagues. With employees scattered around many different places, it can be easy to let communication slip.

As a consequence, managers should put in some extra groundwork to keep lines of communication with their employees clear, for example, by scheduling regular virtual meetings to guarantee that staff can voice concerns, and keeping up a regular dialogue on digital channels. In this way, workstreams will remain clear, and any apprehensions or questions about work can be raised by staff and dealt with by management quickly.

Deciding to make temporary measures more permanent will not be a simple one for any business. Ultimately, every company will adapt to the new circumstances differently, and only they will know what is right for their particular business. As long as employers carefully weigh up all of the consequences that come with a permanent move remote working with care and precision businesses will undoubtedly safeguard their long-term survival, as well as the wellbeing of their employees.


Nic Redfern is the finance director of KnowYourMoney.co.uk, an independent financial comparison website, launched in 2004. Run by a dedicated team, Know Your Money’s goal is to provide clear, accurate and transparent comparisons for a wide range of financial products, such as business loans, mortgages and car insurance.