Survived lockdown? Now the office return battle begins



Boris Johnson wants us back in the office to help kick start the Pret and pints lifestyles of the desk-based army that supports many sectors beyond their own. Bosses and staff are having to engage in a complex dance over safety, and if we really need bums back on seats.

Aspen Bridging has completely overhauled its day-to-day staff operations “to ensure a positive transition back into the workplace”, says Harry Baker, credit manager at the lender.

Employees who have autonomy over their work – “the majority”, says Baker – are only required to return to the office for a maximum of two days a week, in shifts of two teams.

“A lot of employees wanted ‘face time’ with peers so with shifts we are allowing the social interaction of work in this isolated period,” Baker says. Wednesdays and Saturdays are reserved for a full deep clean, ensuring limited cross contamination risk from the two teams.

Employees reliant on public transport can remain working from home. “During these times it can create uncertainty and anxiety to travel by public transport, so we removed this problem, given they are currently successfully working from home,” says Baker.

Changes to the physical space mean social areas in the Solihull office are restricted, and screens and dividers separate desks to maintain social distancing, what Baker calls “small adaptations that make the workplace considerably safer and increase employees’ perception of safety”.

Aspen’s forward-thinking, supportive approach reflects a new reality for employers who must now take even greater steps to protect the health and safety of their employees, from what can be the fatal risk of catching Covid-19. A mid-May survey of tens of thousands of GMB union members found 80pc feared a return to work could give their family coronavirus.

Kerry Stephens, director at headhunters KFS Recruitment, says candidates she speaks to “have many concerns about returning to work during Covid-19” and while companies across the UK have “rallied around” to provide safe office environments, full-time working from home may not always be an option.

Companies of under 20 employees, which includes a large number of bridging lenders and brokers, are finding the adjustment to flexible working easier, says Stephens, as communication from the top down can be carried out faster.

“Once a company reaches a certain size the orchestration of remote or flexible working becomes more difficult, as the processes have to be rolled out fairly,” she says, “then you have the regulated firms and the legal requirements to maintain stringent control on issues like data protection and TCF.”

Even within companies, work teams are not homogeneous. Businesses are still figuring out who does what best where in the New Normal. “We are seeing some departments suffer in remote working as ideas can’t be ‘bounced around’ the office, which results in slower completion times for tasks, affecting service levels and revenue,” says Stephens. Other teams work perfectly remotely, and can be offered more flexible working for the long-term.

Research by Unmind, a workplace mental health service, found eight in 10 employers had more staff requests for mental health support during lockdown. Companies expect similar on reopening – 70pc intend to spend more on mental health services. Communication between employers and staff during the transition phase will be crucial to reintegrating office presence back into daily life.

“Most lenders are having catch up calls with all employees at least once a week, which is vital for business to continue,” says Stephens, who adds managers need to be aware professional cues might have to be worked through in a new way in future.

“Some people work autonomously, others work better closely managed. Some are naturally introverted, so asking for help while working away from the office brings worries that questions equate to incompetency. It’s vital managers are open to listening and are asking their employees if there is anything they need help with,” says Stephens.

She adds a warning: “The risk companies run is if they don’t communicate clearly a wedge will be driven between employer and employees, affecting the synergy of the business. Most people working from home give 100pc. With the right processes there is no reason businesses can’t thrive with a flexible approach.”

Work and home life have blurred in a lockdown where for usually office-based workers everything was forced into the same space. Bridging professionals, like others, discovered personal lessons in confinement.

“My physical wellbeing has actually improved due to being unable to eat out or get takeaways for a while,” says Holly Andrews, managing director of broker KIS Finance, “I got bored of my own cooking quite quickly so I even managed to lose a little bit of weight”.

Without leaving the house for work to break up the day, Andrews found staying at home for long periods depressing, echoing research by the Centre for Mental Health that half a million more people in the UK may experience mental ill-health because of Covid-19.

Poor housing caused health problems for nearly a third of Brits during lockdown, almost 16m people, according to a YouGov survey in June for the National Housing Federation and four other housing organisations.

“Getting outside to exercise helped my mental wellbeing,” she says. “my son kept me active by taking him on daily walks to local beauty spots, the two of us taking turns to ride on his scooter.

“The boredom got to me, so I made an effort with the garden and attempted to learn to ride a bike (thinking it would be easy after all of the scooter practice). I now have a pretty garden and two broken bicycles – and I still can’t ride either of them.”

For Andrews, there is no need, or desire, for work practices at her brokerage to go back to how they were before. Like Aspen Bridging, she says she is going to run her office on a rota – “to help everyone get used to being there again, without it being too overwhelming” – but working remotely will continue to be an option for everyone.

“I’ve got used to working from home now, with the dining room turned into an office and a puppy for company,” Andrews says.  “There will no longer be a requirement for us all to gather for meetings, since we can do it safely via our computer screens.

“We are all well equipped to work from home for as long as needed, so I won’t be rushing everyone back into the office.”