It’s been almost three years since the UK – and most of the wider world – was suddenly plunged into an enforced state of lockdown.
The long-term costs of those lockdowns are still unquantified, from excess deaths through to developmental delays in children and mental health issues among adults.
A less compelling victim of the pandemic has been the office, which for decades served as the fulcrum of weekday life among most working-age adults.
While some professions have always required their employees to be on-site, the UK’s evolution into a service sector economy created millions of desk jobs.
When the pandemic hit, those desk jobs came home. And in early 2023, the prospect of fully reversing this process seems unlikely.
Hybrid working has become the dominant option for millions of people, but could a full-time return to the office be on the cards any time soon?
Reasons to be fearful
Despite the prayers of urban retailers and cafés/restaurants, there are many obstacles standing in the way of resuming our pre-2020 Monday-to-Friday office routines:
On top of all this, millions of people have now discovered the time savings, cost benefits and greater flexibility of home working.
Persuading them to give that up will be very hard – potentially involving a well-judged combination of carrot and stick.
There were widespread expectations throughout the first year of lockdown life that office culture would be permanently ended.
That hasn’t happened, for reasons which have cemented the appeal of hybrid working – splitting the week between WFH and the office, often flexibly around childcare or meetings.
Firstly, humans are pack animals. Many people deliver their best output in groups, and Zoom calls are typically less productive than face-to-face discussions.
Home working can be very lonely, and the social pleasures of discussing the latest episode of Happy Valley or your team’s recent derby win are hard to replicate virtually.
There is a belated recognition that high streets need public support, and visiting your favourite clothes retailer or patisserie can easily be done at lunchtime or on the way home.
Bosses are also less sympathetic to home working post-lockdown, with stories of low productivity and laziness tarnishing the reputations of the honest majority.
What does the future hold?
Some companies are beginning to argue that home working is a privilege, which should result in lower pay – effectively the opposite of London weighting.
Yet in a low-unemployment economy where many employees now prioritise their work-life balance over their salary, companies that insist on a return to the office could face a brain drain.
Hybrid working is likely to remain the compromise solution for existing employees, though in future, new roles are more likely to be created around a full-time office-based structure.
We haven’t seen the last of the communal workspace, then. But most of us won’t be seeing it five days a week in the foreseeable future.