Research from O2’s enterprise business unit suggests the UK’s eyes have been opened to the benefits of working from home and employees want the temporary measures to remain, post-coronavirus.
With the coronavirus pandemic coercing companies through a digital transformation programme to enable remote working and the continuation of business operations, one question which has been asked is how many of these evolutions will be long-term. According to the research, 45% of Brits predict a permanent change to their employers’ approach to flexible working when lockdown lifts.
“With more of us working flexibly than ever before, for most businesses, digital infrastructure has become more important than physical infrastructure,” said Katy Liddell, Director Business Sales & Service at O2. “In the face of this, businesses must continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of their workforce to ensure they continue to attract and retain talent.”
Mobility has been a promised benefit of the digital economy, and while there are some companies embracing the concept, more traditional organisations have resisted. With COVID-19 forcing society into lockdown, these firms are being driven through a transformation programme at rapid speed, but there are notable benefits.
63% of the respondents to the survey would be prepared to live further away from the office should commuting commitments be reduced. The majority would be prepared to live up to an hour away, doubling the amount which currently do so. This is of course a significant benefit to organisations as well as employees, as talent retention might be increased, and it broadens the scope of recruitment to a wider region.
It also means less money would have to be allocated to physical infrastructure, as an office would not need to be as big if only a portion of the workforce will be in at any one time. These savings can be allocated to reinforcing digital infrastructure, but also investing in new projects.
Should flexible working be adopted by urban firms, 41% of city-dwellers would be tempted to move to more rural locations with seaside towns more than doubling their appeal, 16% of respondents.
But what is the potential for COVID-19 working conditions being adopted in the long run?
“It will be difficult to go back to normal ways of working after lockdown, as we’ve now proven that most of us can work from home – despite many companies previously telling employees that it wouldn’t be possible,” said Dr Heejung Chung, Reader in Sociology and Social Policy Director at the University of Kent.
“The UK has a huge challenge with the geographic distribution of wealth, and this exaggerates the problem of overpopulation in cities. If people could work from wherever they want to, without any fear of career penalty, this would create a huge opportunity for everyone.
“Even though the findings highlight that people will be willing to live up to one hour away from work in the future – that’s still constrained by what people feel they currently need to do. If we completely opened this up with consistent flexible working, and we had the right digital infrastructure in place, that time could be significantly increased.”
We suspect that while there will be some return to pre-COVID-19 activities, but for the majority the work from home trend will persist. This does not mean the end of the traditional office, but death to the idea that you have to be sat next to your boss every day. The myth that some industries cannot operate from home at all has now been officially debunked. Interestingly enough, some employees would want a hybrid situation to maintain sanity.
26% miss informal socialising with colleagues, while 30% have admitted working from home can be lonely. The wider social lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic does not help the situation, as a traditional social life does not currently exist. It is also worth noting that digital cannot replace some of the benefits of working face-to-face. We are social beings, albeit some are very miserable, so it would be very immature to suggest the extinction of traditional office spaces.
That said, for numerous digital industries, from cloud computing infrastructure to office virtualisation products and telecoms services, this is a very positive trend.