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The Back to the Office Conundrum

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Written by:

Simon Marsden – Director – Gambit Corporate Finance

Simon is a Director at Gambit Corporate Finance LLP and is a key member of the firm’s dedicated Human Capital sector team. Simon has significant experience in advising companies and shareholders on a range of Corporate Finance advisory services, including acquisitions, disposals, management buy-outs, fundraisings and restructurings, both in the UK and internationally.

As the race continues between the UK’s vaccine roll-out programme and controlling the spread of the Delta variant employers are still trying to formulate plans on what their “new normal” means for working practices.  On the one hand protecting the needs of the business whilst at the same time balancing the needs of its workforce, many of whom have become accustomed to a very different way of working.  The pandemic has certainly brought the benefits of agile working and the work v life balance debate into sharp focus.

Several big UK employers have already announced plans to introduce flexible working.  Nationwide has announced it will allow its 13,000 office staff to “choose where they work” whether at home, offices or in its high street branch network.  NatWest expects over a third of its 59,300 UK full-time employees to continue to work remotely, with some 55% of its staff adopting a hybrid model of working between the office and home.

KPMG, in response to a survey of its employees, has announced its staff will work four days each fortnight in its offices.  Its Chief Executive Ian Holt stated “We trust our people.  Our new way of working will empower them and enable them to design their own working week.  The pandemic has proven it’s not about where you work, but how you work.”

Staff working at Deloitte will be able to work wherever they want when Covid restrictions are eased and work from home guidance is scrapped.  Deloitte Senior Partner and Chief Executive Richard Houston said: “The impact of the pandemic has profoundly changed our way of life, not least in the way we work. The last year has really shown that one size does not fit all when it comes to balancing work and personal lives.  It has also shown that we can trust our people to make the right choice in when, how and where they work.”

This flexibility, whilst being welcomed by employees, presents a challenge for professional services firms where meeting a client’s expectations and requirements must be paramount.  Whilst these needs vary by specialism there is an unavoidable preference for face to face interaction with clients at critical points or when making key decisions.

Others appear to be adopting a less flexible approach.  Goldman Sachs, the global investment bank, initially told its UK employees to prepare for a return to the office on 21 June in line with the anticipated lifting of social distancing requirements.  The 21 June “deadline” has now been relaxed following restrictions being extended until 19 July.  Its CEO, David Solomon, described working from home becoming the normal as “an aberration”.

“We know from experience that our culture of collaboration, innovation and apprenticeship thrives when our people come together, and we look forward to having more of our colleagues back in the office so that they can experience that once again on a regular basis,” Goldman Sachs said. 

Clearly the requirements of each business are different and a number of competing factors need to be considered in determining the optimum balance.  For some there are overriding practicalities as to how feasible it is for the employee to effectively carry out their role at home.  Remote working also has implications for teamworking and employee morale and it has become clear that younger team members welcome being around more senior team members for the benefits of interaction, “osmosis” of the office environment, mentoring and providing a delineation between work and home.

A natural tension exits between employers, who want employees back in the office because “that’s what they used to do” and employees enjoying the elimination of commuting time, the flexibility of working from home and its positive impact on family life, mental health and productivity.  For those promoting a greener future the positive environmental impact of reduced traffic into cities and less business travel whether by car, plane or train should not be overlooked, particularly as ESG rises further up the corporate agenda.

Employee loyalty has increased significantly during the pandemic.  According to the latest edition of Randstad’s Employer Brand Research report (based on a survey of 190,000 individuals across 34 markets) 68% of employees feel more loyal towards their employer with only 6% feeling less loyal.  The report also found that a proper work life balance (cited by 58%) is now almost as important as salary and benefits (cited by 62%).

The key for employers as they move forward into the “new normal” is capturing the goodwill generated from the positive methods and initiatives employed to maintain employee engagement during the pandemic whilst providing employees with flexibility and a sensible work life balance.  An unwillingness by employers to meet this demand could see the increase in employee loyalty quickly dissipate.

This will be particularly true in London where recent research by Guidant Global warned of a talent exodus from London.  Simon Blockley, CEO of Guidant Global commented, “One of the side effects we're seeing from the pandemic is a migration of talent from previously popular and crowded cities to more remote locations that often offer better value for money when it comes to living costs and a better quality of life.”  Talent acquisition and retention is becoming increasingly difficult across a number of sectors, particularly amongst younger workers who are actively seeking greater flexibility and more intangibles in their working environments.

Remote working has broken down geographical barriers for many employers and employees, initiating a rethink on both where top talent is located and where these individuals want to work.  Like any relationship there has to be trust, communication, compromise and managing of expectations for it to work effectively and benefit all.

There is no right or wrong answer in all of this and a balanced approach is needed to deliver the requirements of the business whilst also supporting the needs and aspirations of its employees.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the coming months but it seems clear that the definition of “office working” as we know it has changed.

What migrating into the “new normal” offers is an opportunity for some innovative thinking in how employees work and how employers structure working practices to extract the best from its workforce in terms of engagement, motivation and productivity.  It’s those employers that grasp this challenge and embrace it that will thrive and attract and retain the best talent in the process.