For the deskbound, not much will change. Unlike pubs, restaurants and nonessential retailers, offices were not closed by government decree. Instead, since late March, the government has been encouraging those who can work from home to do so. As The Economist went to press, it was due to issue guidance on how to work safely in oﬃces. The main thrust is expected to be, for now, not to.
Attitudes have shifted rapidly. A business-continuity planner at a financial-services firm says that before the lockdown, when the company initially pondered moving to split working to enforce more distancing in their oﬃces, “no one wanted to be on the working from home side. But a few weeks later, as we started planning how to get back to the oﬃce, everyone wanted to stay at home.” More than half of Britons would like to work from home more often after the crisis and around a third say the ability to work at home will be a factor when they next seek a new job.
Nobody is yet committing to flogging their own headquarters and, in the short term, the need for social distancing within oﬃces may prop up demand. But some bosses are predicting radical changes that will delight chief financial oﬃcers eyeing potential savings from dumping expensive city-centre locations. Jes Staley, chief executive of Barclays, has said that large headquarters buildings may become a “thing of the past”. Mr Aubert “would be very surprised if corporations in professional services kept more than 5% of their real estate, and it might be significantly less”. Even a commercial-property manager admits that “there is a serious risk that what was once a prime real-estate asset is now an overpriced half-empty building.”
The pandemic has prompted ﬁrms to think hard about what offices are for, and many are concluding that a lot of tasks are better done from home. Lee Elliott of Knight Frank, an estate agent, reckons that “the days of people taking a 74-minute average commute into town to process email, and then 74 minutes back out—they’re gone.” Mr Gosling believes that “the focus of the workplace will be much more around collaboration, much more around the things you can only get the most value from by being together.”
That will be more important to some sectors than others. Mr Rudd of Leo Burnett reckons that “in the advertising world many people thrive off that collaboration and being together, and so they will still need oﬃces where they can do that.” But if social distancing limits the number of people who can work physically together, it will undermine the office’s collaborative function. “I’d happily go back if everyone was going back,” says an executive at a technology firm, “but it makes no sense if only one in four people are there. I might as well be at home.”
More home working will mean new challenges for managers. Home workers are harder to monitor and so trust becomes more important. It will be harder for junior employees than senior ones. Junior employees need mentoring, want to socialise and have worse living conditions. But the decisions on the future of offices will be made by those for whom the alternative is more likely to be a nice house than a bedsit.
Some even predict the decline of oﬃce politics. “Normally in the oﬃce power structure, there’s always one who’s chatting up the powers that be, being just perched outside the oﬃce door when they’re going for lunch or for coffee,” according to Ann Francke, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute. When people work at home, “that kind of political operator is rendered useless.”
If companies shrink their oﬃce space, the impact could be felt well beyond the firms themselves. “Getting rid of those physical barriers between cities will actually make us much more diverse,” says Tanuj Kapilashrami, head of human resources at Standard Chartered, who predicts that the firm will recruit from a wider pool. “I think there will be a significant movement of people out of London,” says Mr Gosling. “If I was in Boris’s shoes, the opportunity for the so-called ‘level-up’ is unbelievable,” says Mr Aubert, referring to the prime minister’s plan to raise incomes outside London and the south-east. There could be consequences for infrastructure, social geography and the subject closest to the British heart—house prices.
The need for workers to cluster together in offices has shaped every aspect of modern life. If the pandemic has weakened the office’s hold on society, the implications will be profound.