Blog: Back to business as usual?

Scott Petersen CEO takes a look at how the workplace might work, post Covid 19.

As the Covid19 restrictions ease in the UK, the thoughts of those people still lucky enough to be in employment, turn slowly to the prospects of returning to work. Returning to work in a workplace that is, not the work routine we have become used to in the last year.

No longer the short commute from the bedroom to the palatial splendour of the spare room and the IKEA flatpack desk. Once again, there will be the prospect of the drive to the station at 6.30am on a cold wet December morning, the exorbitantly priced parking space and season ticket, the fight for a free seat on the train and the intimate cosiness of trip five stops on the Jubilee Line wearing a face mask. Who really wants that? Unsurprisingly, not many it seems.

In a survey of 13,000 staff at the Nationwide Building Society, 57% said they wanted to work from home full-time after lockdown ends. More than a third (36%), said they preferred a mix of home and office-based work. Based on this, Joe Garner, chief executive of Nationwide, proclaimed: “The last year has taught many of us that ‘how’ we do our jobs is much more important than ‘where’ we do them from.” Three Nationwide offices in Swindon will now not have their leases renewed. The death of the workplace it seems is much heralded.

But let’s not be too hasty. Not every CEO feels comfortable with this approach because of the lack of visibility and control over the workforce. And not all workers have enjoyed the freedom afforded by the home-based, distributed-working lifestyle. Recent research published by Egress, “Remote working: one year on report”, indicates that three-quarters (73 percent) of respondents claimed they were feeling worse overall because of long-term remote working. 66 percent of younger workers felt more tired, stressed or under more pressure, compared with only 34 percent of their older colleagues. These stats almost certainly reflect the relative disparity between these two groups in terms of the comfort and sophistication of the home-working environments.

If things are not reverting to the old normal, then neither it seems, will people want to fully embrace the new normal. 68 percent of workers are planning for some degree of flexibility, with just five percent of current remote workers planning to stay permanently remote once their office reopens. What we can probably expect therefore, is a totally different balance between physical and digital activity.

Work will become divided between what can be done well remotely in isolation, and what can only be achieved through collaboration together. How many of us have found Zoom and Teams great for catch-ups but almost impossible as a vehicle for collaboration? Many businesses such as advertising agencies thrive on the spark that exists from getting creative people in a huddle, something that just can’t be replicated through a MacBook Pro.

The main challenge facing business, is what to do with the workplace itself if the decision is made to implement distributed, or agile working patterns, more extensively. Not every business is as able as Nationwide to downsize and offload properties. Many are tied into long leases of five years or more and have no opportunity to reduce their overall footprint. In the physical workplace, we should therefore anticipate some changes to both layout and functionality, with a move away from rigid layouts to accommodate a more flexible use of space – collaboration rooms, meeting spaces, hot-desking, food and recreational areas and the like. Undoubtedly, there will be a greater attention to wellness in the workplace, improved amenities, and a much greater focus on sustainability.

Government and senior leaders have consistently argued that sustainability must be at the core of our recovery plans. The global pandemic has prompted a slowing in CO2 emissions and given us a helping hand, but not as great as one might imagine. Although CO2 emissions from transport are down, people are still consuming energy now as home workers, instead of collectively in big corporate buildings. Also, just because a building is almost empty of people, it doesn’t mean that its energy use drops to zero. Engineers are loathe to shut down key building systems like heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) because it can lead to unhealthy air or corrosion in boilers and chillers. Emergency lighting and elevators must remain on, as must the servers running the business tasks being carried out by employees at home.

Office building energy consumption fell steadily through March 2020 and into early April, but it did not fall off a cliff. Compared to the first week of March, office building energy consumption fell five percent the following week, then continued to drop, and was only 25 percent lower by the first week of April. And there it stayed.

When people return to the workplace, energy consumption will return to pre-pandemic levels, because even if there are fewer socially-distanced people per square metre, heating and cooling will still have to service that entire space. In fact, there may need to be a need to increase HVAC consumption to ensure improved fresh-air flow circulation and less internal air recirculation, to counter Covid transmission in confined areas.

From our perspective, the opportunity for using Demand Side Response (DSR) as a mechanism for both reducing CO2 emissions and generating an income, has never been greater. We access the flexible load in a building to make DSR happen, and new ways of working will not make a huge difference to the CO2 reductions and financial benefits we can deliver. In some circumstances, DSR could even be more effective, so contact us now to see how we can help.