In many parts of the UK and Europe government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions are easing. The UK lags behind many continental European counterparts and only opened restaurants, pubs, and non-essential shops on a limited capacity basis in the second half of June. While the UK’s death rate per million due to COVID-19 is still quite high compared to their neighbours, there are signs of hope. Daily death rates continue to fall, and the national reproduction, or R number, remains below 1 in most parts of the UK.

The UK spent approximately 100 days in draconian stages of lockdown. In March, the government told employees who were not furloughed and able to perform their jobs remotely to work from home. A work from home mandate was essential in curbing the spread of the virus as public transportation and offices are both shared-space environments where social distancing is near impossible. These conditions are environments where COVID-19 is likely to spread. More recently, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has changed his tune about working from home. In July, Mr Johnson said people should begin returning to work ‘if they can.’

Save offices, save retail, save the economy

Getting employees back in offices will help the UK’s economic recovery from the pandemic. Not because working in an office is more productive and profitable than working from home, but returning workers to offices translates to revenue for businesses surrounding offices.

Reopening the UK economy is critical. Currently, over a quarter of the UK’s workforce is not working and supported by the government-backed Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. The furlough programme is starting to wind down and scheduled to end in October 2020. There’s great concern about what will happen as government support programmes are only temporary measures designed to provide some breathing room. Recently the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development claimed unemployment levels in the UK could reach nearly 15%, and the UK will experience the worst correction among developed nations.

Remote working has dramatically benefited some companies such as teleconference platforms, online retailers as well as food delivery services like Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Just Eat. Unfortunately, the overall lack of workers heading to Central Business Districts such as the City of London and Mayfair has crushed businesses in these areas. Pre-pandemic, thousands of workers frequented shops near their offices to pick up their morning coffee, grab lunch at a food truck, ship a birthday present to their cousin, fill a prescription at a nearby pharmacy, squeeze in a lunchtime workout at a gym, and drop off shoes requiring re-soling at a cobbler. Purpose-built centres such as Canary Wharf are hugely developed and offer amenities and stores beyond humdrum daily errands. The shops at Canary Wharf are proper retail experiences that include fine dining restaurants like Roka Sushi and luxury shopping. Retailers that heavily rely on footfall from one specific audience are inherently at higher risk, pandemic or not (although in Canary Wharf specifically this is partially offset by some apartment residences in the area). That said, when landlords assessed the creditworthiness of Canary Wharf’s tenants, it’s unlikely a scenario such as a COVID-19 that emptied offices for 100 days was considered. Neither the government nor the landlords or their tenants want these areas to become permanent ghost towns. The government has introduced loan schemes such as CBILS to help feigned businesses weather the worst of this storm. However, the downstream effect of permanently shuttering such business districts would be devastating.

Do companies need an office?

Aside from the economic implications for landlords and businesses surrounding offices, this pandemic has brought a key question to light. Do companies need an office? This question is important to businesses of all sizes but is particularly relevant for small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) as well as younger companies and start-ups who may only have a limited pool of working capital. Eliminating office rent could provide businesses with additional operating liquidity that could be invested in growing a business rather than paying rent. The government-imposed lockdown required companies who were able to continue business via working remotely to adjust quickly. Some larger corporates and tech companies already had extensive remote-working plans and IT infrastructure in place in case of emergencies. This practice was widely adopted post-September 11th. Many banks even keep back-up offices for such situations. Despite efforts to prepare for emergencies, the unprecedented and unique COVID-19 pandemic left many scrambling. Everything changed from how managers keep tabs on teams and projects, ensuring all employees can work online, taking meetings from boardrooms to teleconferences, and even how to remotely close transactions that typically require a notary witness.

Managing employees from afar: friend or foe?

Some companies have settled into business without offices and declared remote working a success. In May 2020, tech company Twitter announced that employees could continue to work remotely indefinitely if they choose. Many workers have said they enjoy working from home and would like to keep this set-up even after it’s safe to return to offices. Working from home has eliminated long commutes and provided some employees with more time for their interests outside of their careers, such as time with family members or a favourite hobby or sport. All will likely agree that being home to receive packages is preferable to scrambling to a nearby pick-up location before the close of business. Of course, this isn’t the across the board consensus in the UK. Many miss interacting with their team, changing up their daily environment, and being able to ask a teammate a question by walking over to them rather than coordinating a video call.

Not all managers believe that working from home is the best long-term option. One consideration is that the office serves as a means to keep everyone accountable. The office is a central hub that ensures employees start working on time each day, limits distractions and encourages employees to follow a businesses’ code of conduct and best practices. That includes everything from dress code to how employees interact with clients. While office rent is a significant expense, the workplace can also serve as an unspoken babysitter for some employees. Many managers agree it’s been surprisingly easy to keep employees engaged and focused from home during the lockdown; however, this may have partly been due to the lack of distractions. All but essential stores were closed, movement outside your home was limited and interactions with those outside your household was forbidden. Time will tell if employees remain as vigilant about their work responsibilities with pubs and entertainment venues open and social gatherings permitted.

Can we ever replace in-person meetings?

Remote working and the use of artificial intelligence are becoming more common in workplaces. The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated the adaptation of some of these technologies. That said, it remains to be seen if businesses will fully adapt to this type of environment or if people will yearn for in-person interaction. Many investors are conducting meetings with prospects online. Still, some have expressed reluctance to “seal the deal” without speaking with a management team in-person.

The question of whether an office is required remains a topic for debate. Even if company leadership decides that employees in an office are the best option for their business, how to keep everyone safe getting to and while in the office presents several challenges.

Daily commute

Until (and if) a vaccine becomes available, tested, and distributed, we must learn to live with COVID-19, and the first challenge is getting employees to the office without putting them and others at risk for infection. How can workers safely commute as the world continues to grapple with coronavirus? While the medical community is still working to understand how the virus spreads and infects others, they do know that social distancing is a must for the time being. Maintaining distance is nearly impossible to achieve in highly-trafficked areas during peak transportation hours.

Cycling: a great idea but is it a realistic solution?

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suggested commuters try cycling as a COVID-secure and environmentally friendly option. In May, Grant Shapps, the UK’s transport secretary introduced a £2bn package that includes £250m earmarked for an “emergency active travel fund.” These funds will finance the construction of wider pavements and more cycle lanes throughout the country. For some, biking can be an ideal mode of transportation. It’s often faster than the tube, an excellent form of exercise, and kind to the environment. That said, cycling to work comes with several potential hurdles and headaches. Before lockdown, only 4% of the UK cycled to their place of work.

They say “man plans, and God laughs.” Whether the UK’s capricious weather patterns are due to a higher power looking for a giggle or it’s geographic location, we can all agree the weather in the UK is unpredictable. Many days require both an umbrella and a pair of sunglasses, as well as a variety of layers to adjust to varying temperatures and temperatures. The ever-changing weather can make a cycling commute more difficult or uncomfortable, particularly if it’s raining or quite cold. According to Statista.com, in 2019 it rained approximately 164.6 days in the UK, that’s nearly half the days in an entire calendar year.

Most employees don’t want to arrive at work soaking wet from rainfall or overheated if they biked on an unusually warm day. Not all offices have a shower and changing room facilities available for employees’ use. Even if a company does have such a set-up, how will multiple employees coordinate timing to use these facilities, and how will they be sanitised after each use?

Speaking of facilities, not all offices have an area to safely store a number of bicycles either. Petty crime and theft are, unfortunately, rampant in many parts of the UK. Nearly 400,000 bikes were stolen in 2019, which means a bike is stolen every 90 seconds. The most targeted city is London, closely followed by Edinburgh and Oxford. If your office doesn’t have a bike garage, Santander Cycles are an option, but they’re used on a first-come, first-serve basis and can only be booked ten minutes in advance. This means Santander Cycles are not a feasible system if you’re looking for a reliably available form of transportation for daily use. If your commute is longer than 30 minutes each way, Santander Cycles could potentially become expensive as well. While an annual membership is £90 (25p per day), this only covers the first 30 minutes of a journey. After 30 minutes, cyclists pay £2 every 30 minutes. It’s worth noting this is still less expensive than riding the tube, but significantly more than the £0 work from home commute. Santander bikes may also not be the most comfortable bike option if you plan on cycling every day. More recently, competing bike hire schemes have come onto the market such as Jump, Lime, Mobike, Mobike Lite, and Freeride. Lime offers electric-assisted bikes which may be useful if you want to avoid perspiring during your cycle and arrive at the office feeling fresh.

Another consideration when looking at cycling to work is safety. Navigating chaotic city streets filled with cars, lorries, buses, pedestrians, and other bikers require some skills and wherewithal. Biking could be particularly challenging with a disproportionate number of novice cyclists hitting the pavement as lockdown lifts.

There’s also the cost of purchasing a bike. The government’s Cyclescheme does relieve some of the cost burdens for employees as bikes, and some accessories may be purchased with your pre-tax salary. Depending on your tax bracket, this could equate to savings of 31-48%.

Cycling is undoubtedly an innovative and healthy commuting option that seems less likely to spread COVID-19 compared to a densely packed tube carriage or train. Cycling is common in nearby countries such as The Netherlands and Denmark, which get even more annual rainfall than the UK. That said, cycling is not an option for everyone for the reasons mentioned above, as well as geography and health. For those who work in London but live in the country and suburbs, biking to work may simply take too long. Of course, not everyone may be physically able to bike to work due to a health condition, and some simply may not want to. The prospect of arriving at the office in a wrinkled suit drenched in sweat with muddy puddle water splashed across your shoes and flattened helmet hair isn’t exactly a great start to the day.

How will staggering arrivals work?

Staggering arrivals into the office to prevent overcrowding in offices, particularly in elevators, restrooms, and other frequented common areas within an office has been suggested. This still begs the question of how this works for both managers looking after a team and employees who are commuting. Will employees have any interest in shifting their hours and working from 11-7 or 7-3 rather than 9-5? Off-peak work schedules could also present complications for employees who work with external parties or clients who may not be in sync with their modified plan. These problems can be managed with some flexibility and coordination, but is it worth it if you could safely continue working from home during your regular schedule?

Are employees willing to risk their life for in-person facetime?

Many companies have been polling employees to gauge sentiment around returning to offices and safety concerns. Responses are, of course, varied as this pandemic is a highly personal experience. Each employee has a different job, health profile and personal circumstances that affect how we each adopt our new way of life. Also, everyone evaluates risk, whether perceived or actual, in different ways. Some workers will be coldly rational and comfortable accepting that commuting to work may put them at higher risk for catching COVID-19. It's still relatively low risk compared to other life-threatening events that can happen over the course of a workday (e.g., a car accident). Some may not feel safe or trust their employer can effectively implement and enforce social distancing measures. Some simply may not want to return to the office if they feel equally as effective working from home and see no reason to put themselves in harm's way if it’s not necessary. Employees in positions that once required frequent air travel may not be as inclined to perform their job functions.

Business owners will undoubtedly have to make tough choices over the coming months as they chart a course towards reopening. There’s no one size fits all approach that will appease every employee and it’s important to remain sensitive to each individual’s situation. While your carefree 20-something worker may be itching to get back in the office, another employee who lives with their Nan may not be as keen. The pandemic is far from over and is evolving; every day presents a new and different set of challenges. The human race has had to drastically change how we live. Amidst this chaos, we have realised that our relationships with each other are stronger and more agile than this virus. We must remember this as we move back, not to our “normal,” that longer exists, but where we’re going.