Remote possibilities

The shift towards remote working will have far-reaching consequences in a post-COVID-19 world, from where we choose to live and the way businesses operate to how our towns and cities regenerate


Image: Istock

Greg Campbell

Partner, Campbell Tickell

Do any of us really expect to go back to the life we were living just 15 months ago? Some people believe we will. But let’s be honest: this is wishful thinking. So much has changed for us all, and while some elements will head back in a prior direction, nothing will be quite the same again; some things will be strikingly different.

Why is this? First and foremost, it is because many of the changes we have experienced and delivered over the past year – often at breakneck speed – would have happened anyway, but over a longer time horizon. One obvious example is agile working, which so many organisations already had in their plans, but commonly for implementation over several years.

Remote control

Despite what David Solomon (Goldman Sachs CEO) and sundry government ministers may say, there is unlikely to be a headlong rush back to the office, certainly not on a full-time basis. First, survey after international survey have shown significant numbers of employees keen to continue working remotely, some of the time. Second, employers now know they can keep their operations going, and indeed maintain productivity, with a remote operation.

That in turn means they can achieve significant overhead savings by downsizing their premises. Nothing concentrates the business mind more than the prospect of maintaining output for reduced cost input. Sure enough, HSBC for instance has announced a 40% reduction in its global office footprint. Also, Standard Chartered has partnered with IWG Group to provide access for its 95,000 staff to local office centres, while reducing its permanent offices.

Is the office dead? Clearly not: workers are keen to get back there, just not five days a week; while employers can see the benefit of retaining offices, but smaller with different uses. Yes, some large businesses, particularly in tech and finance, are proposing to get rid of offices entirely, but I for one don’t believe this will hold indefinitely or across the board.

“Nothing concentrates the business mind more than the prospect of maintaining output for reduced cost input.”

Face time

There is much value is to be derived from getting teams together in person. It is not about bums on seats, but it is about collaboration, informal sharing of information and effective induction of new starters. Of course there is also the social side – especially for younger workers, for whom engaging with colleagues inside and outside the workplace can be an important part of the broader work experience. Most importantly, it is about sharing and developing the culture of an organisation. The more time passes with work conducted exclusively remotely, the harder it is to maintain a shared culture, especially with new members of a team who may never have met their colleagues in person.

Crucially, the issue of inclusion must be kept in focus. For one thing, many workers – and indeed whole sectors of the economy – are unable, by the nature of their jobs, to operate remotely. On the other side, there is evidence that, in a hybrid working environment, workers who operate remotely full-time can all too easily be forgotten and risk being left behind, for instance when internal promotions are being considered.

Management styles have to change from the traditional ‘presenteeism’ approach. Managers need to be more nuanced in running their teams. They must foster an environment of mutual trust and they also need to operate on the basis of outputs rather than inputs.

There are other aspects to the new ways of living and working. People working remotely need more space to facilitate this, plus access to a range of resources. The quick fixes put in place at the onset of the pandemic involved many, commonly younger or more junior employees, operating from bedrooms or sharing kitchen tables, and putting up with unreliable broadband. These are not acceptable long-term solutions.

“Beyond that, however, it is about the homes and places where people live. Some people are already voting with their feet, moving out of cities to areas still commutable, but where they get more for their money, whether renting or buying.”

Home time

How will this be addressed? In an immediate sense, employers should be doing what they can to provide practical support to their staff to facilitate remote working.

Beyond that, however, it is about the homes and places where people live. Some people are already voting with their feet, moving out of cities to areas still commutable, but where they get more for their money, whether renting or buying. It is not just about space within the home – it is also about access to a garden or park. Other amenities are important too: transport, healthcare, education, recreation, shops and cafés/restaurants. But while the longer commute to the office is a downside, if you’re only making that journey a couple of days a week, it is less of an imposition.

On the other side, increasing gaps are opening up in town and city centres, as demand for both office accommodation and physical retail outlets reduce. Certainly with retail, the growth of online shopping at the expense of in-store has been an increasing trend for a number of years. The pandemic has exacerbated this, and while one can expect some return of footfall to the high street – especially to smaller local shops (rather than chains) – it will not return to the status quo ante.

Space race

What then will happen to the spaces created? The answer is likely to be different things: in some cases housing is a realistic prospect, either where existing buildings can be converted to the sort of homes people want to live in (i.e. not the horrid little boxes we have too often seen created under Permitted Development Rights), or where sites are cleared and new housing erected.

Just last month for instance, developer Retirement Villages Group announced plans to create 5,000 retirement homes in UK city centres, an approach popular in the Netherlands for a number of years, particularly through the Humanitas Foundation. In other cases, the uses could be quite different, such as the parks and recreation areas being carved out of central Stockton-on-Tees.

These new approaches represent exciting opportunities to build a bold new future from the negatives of the pandemic. But they will only work if those concerned – regeneration policymakers, planners, developers, architects and councils – recognise the need to work with the grain of what individuals and communities are comfortable will meet their needs. This calls for a combination of maximum consultation and understanding the new direction of markets.

This article is the digest of a presentation Greg gave to the European Federation for Living on 15 April 2021.

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