Time to consider the impact of remote working on local economies?


Some branches of Pret a Manger in the City have had to close Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment

The city centre businesses that once relied on the passing trade of office workers are under threat as business districts remain empty. Do organisations have a moral duty to consider the impact their working arrangements have on these vulnerable firms, writes Alberto Lopez-Valenzuela?

The sudden shift to remote working may herald the end of the office, at least as we know it. Five months later and the shift to the kitchen table continues, seemingly unabated.

According to a survey from US bank Morgan Stanley, just a third of UK office workers have gone back to their workplaces – far behind figures recorded in France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Business leaders have had an unenviable range of factors to juggle: the health concerns of their employees; the financial effects on their businesses and the economy; and the long term impact on staff mental health. All of these issues and more have had a reputational impact on businesses and have driven their decisions around whether to bring staff back to the office – but now another issue must be factored in.

Big business must consider the impact on their own communities being wrought by long term and wide-scale remote working. No business operates in isolation – every area of every city is an ecosystem, one that survives and thrives thanks to everyday employee interactions: the daily commutes and cups of coffee; the lunchtime sales and after-work shopping trips.

Remote working threatens the livelihoods of many working in the hospitality and retail sectors, often in deprived neighbourhoods. In normal times, Pret a Manger would sell 80 million cups of coffee a year, but July saw the sandwich chain close 30 of its branches and make 1,000 members of staff redundant in the face of a dramatically reduced footfall. The impact on smaller businesses is likely to be even more pronounced.

Such concerns have undoubtedly contributed towards the government’s abandonment of its “work from home” guidance, as well as advice to avoid public transport. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has also drawn attention to the impact on businesses in the heart of the capital, saying: “With employers planning to continue homeworking well into next year, the numbers of people visiting the West End will be reduced for many months ahead.”

But this change in message hasn’t set off a widespread return to office spaces. Sky News recently reported that just one in six workers have made their way back into the city – leading to a footfall of just 17% of what it was before the pandemic.

Time to rethink remote working decisions?

However, it’s is clear that big businesses are also considering the impact of remote working policies on local economies – not to mention their own reputations. Indeed, the reputational risks surrounding this complex issue are high – alva’s own research has placed it as one of the top media talking points of August.

No business operates in isolation – every area of every city is an ecosystem, one that survives and thrives thanks to everyday employee interactions.”

Back in April, Barclays CEO Jes Staley said that “the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past” but he has since changed his approach, highlighting the group’s links to the local communities surrounding its office hubs. He suggested “it is important to get people back together in physical concentrations” because the bank has “a responsibility to places like Canary Wharf, like Manchester, like Glasgow”.

Conversely, NatWest Group has been criticised for telling its 50,000 staff members that working from home could continue until the end of the year, causing concern over the impact on the cafes, lunch spots and other key retailers near its branches.

Some businesses are taking a more inventive approach to traditional work structures. Magic Circle law firm Allen and Overy is reopening its London office for any staff who want to go back – but returning employees will alternate weeks of commuting with weeks of remote working.

Lloyds Banking Group is testing out thermal cameras to check the temperatures of its colleagues. Meanwhile, private equity group Carlyle is planning to open its headquarters in the capital, but will ask staff to avoid using public transport to get to work and even request that those that do so at the weekends avoid their office for two weeks.

Big businesses are also considering the impact of remote working policies on local economies – not to mention their own reputations.”

And, of course, many companies including Schroders, Rightmove and National Grid are taking a cautious approach, closely monitoring the situation as it develops and gradually introducing small numbers back to their workspaces.

Getting the balance right

Businesses have an almost impossible balancing act to perform. On the one hand, there are many employees who continue to feel uneasy about the prospect of resuming their pre-pandemic train journeys and making their way back to bustling offices. On the other, in a post-Covid world, consumers are looking for evidence that brands are living up to their proclaimed values and supporting troubled communities.

This holds a host of challenges for HR too – whether it’s navigating the varied viewpoints of staff; identifying measures that will make them feel comfortable; or communicating with a workforce that’s split between home and office work.

Big business must ask itself some serious questions about what it stands for – and how it wants to be perceived. As businesses seek to rebuild their contract with society, maintaining a physical office presence –and thereby supporting local businesses – may form a cornerstone of such efforts.

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