From boardroom to spare room: the working from home revolution

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, 1.7 million people mainly worked from home in the UK, or about 5% of the country’s 33 million workforce. Over the past month, millions more have joined them in the spare room or at the kitchen table.

Amid warnings that some lockdown restrictions could stay in place into 2021, companies are grappling with a sudden cultural shift in how we work.

Mark Read, the chief executive of WPP, the world’s biggest employer in the marketing and advertising sector, welcomes a working from home revolution but says it is not right for everyone.

“If you said to me five weeks ago that I would have 100,000 people working from home and we would function fine, I’d say you were mad,” he says. “One of the most common town hall questions I get globally is about working from home [longer term]. There is interest in it but there is also a demand to come back to an office. Junior employees and those in shared accommodation find homeworking much more difficult than senior executives with houses and gardens.”

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For one London-based animation and special effects business, Jellyfish Pictures, working from home has been a surprise success. In the future its staff will find that, on certain days of the week, their new morning commute routine is limited to walking to the kitchen for a coffee.

Jellyfish, which employs about 250 staff and has credits including Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Black Mirror, has continued to work on projects including a film for the Shrek-maker DreamWorks despite shutting its five UK studios six weeks ago.

“What we have learned from this is that there hasn’t been any drop in productivity,” the Jellyfish founder, Phil Dobree, says. “Some practices have improved, such as communication, which is actually more regular and efficient remotely. In the office, meetings often unnecessarily run on, or conversely people don’t communicate enough – now they are.”

The speed with which Silicon Valley companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter ordered their employees globally to make the shift to homeworking in late February and early March makes a challenging transition for many companies look easy.

“Most Facebook employees are fortunate to be able to work from home,” the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, acknowledged in a post on Thursday. “We know that most people can’t work from home as easily as many of our employees can.” Indeed, the companies that are most able to adapt to homeworking are limited to sectors such as media, tech and financial services. For others representing vast areas of employment – airlines; bricks-and-mortar retail; car manufacturing – it is impossible.

But adaptation is occurring where it can. A US survey by the research firm Gartner has found that three-quarters of chief financial officers believe that at least 5% of their workforce – who previously worked in company offices – will become permanent work-from-home employees after the pandemic ends. Of those CFOs, 17% believe a fifth of staff will move to working from home and 4% believe that half of employees will become remote workers.

The lessons learned from lockdown could spark a more rapid and widespread “virtualisation” of business practices, according to one investor.

“It is clear to us that we are likely to see an increasing virtualisation of business life,” says Jamie Ross, a fund manager of Henderson EuroTrust. “Remote working has gone much more smoothly than many companies feared. We will see more people working from home, smaller office spaces, more meetings being conducted online and less corporate travel.”

From that perspective, the likely long-term losers are airlines, hotels and a commercial property sector already reeling from the destruction being wrought upon retailers.

It will also change some industries that have been under pressure but can adapt at least. The publishing industry has had the technology to allow many staff to work from home for years, but many companies have been resistant to implementing widespread flexible working practices.

The impact of the coronavirus has accelerated the long-term pressures publishers have been battling, including the decline in print sales and drift of readership and advertising online to the behemoths of Google and Facebook. As balance sheets are further stretched, the cost savings from being able to reduce office space is likely to prove attractive.

“Coronavirus has concertinaed a lot of change we have been seeing over the last number of years in just three months, flexible working being one of them,” says James Wildman, the chief executive of the Cosmopolitan owner, Hearst UK, and a former executive at the publisher of the Mirror and Express titles. “Office space is costly, and tends to be high density, and a lot of people will be uncomfortable with that even after the virus. Forward-thinking managers were already pushing flexible working but in more traditional industries, like newspaper publishing, there has unfortunately been a cultural lag.”

City banks were some of the first to split their operations, with Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, HSBC and Barclays sending thousands of staff to work from home, or in disaster recovery sites in areas of London including Croydon, Lewisham and Northolt, last month.

John Cronin, a financial analyst at the stockbroker Goodbody, says it will start dawning on bosses that most banking roles – including research, trading and sales – are desk jobs that can ultimately be done from home.

“This will be a revolution in terms of how we work,” he says. “There’s a lot of wastage. A lot of people travel abroad for one meeting and I think those days are over.”

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