How the pandemic transformed the world of work in 2021

There were winners and losers as work patterns continued changing, with repercussions for city centres and society as a whole

Of all the predictions on your 2021 bingo card, who had employees being fined for going into the office? Workers in Wales now face that threat since the tightening of Covid regulations amid the spread of the Omicron variant, with a possible £60 penalty for failing to work from home.

That is just one of many examples of how the pandemic has transformed the world of work this year – and perhaps for ever – for city centre employers, their staff and the service industry that depends on them for trade.

Out of office

Most white-collar workers are ending 2021 back where they began – hunched over laptops on kitchen tables, in spare rooms or even garden sheds. Yet this deja vu obscures a big change: it has been demonstrated to many employers that staff can do productive work from home, a hotel room or even a poolside lounger in another country, and don’t necessarily need to be in a city centre office.

A woman using a laptop on a dining room table set up as a remote office to work from home.
It has been demonstrated to many employers that staff can do productive work from home. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

As lockdown restrictions eased during the spring, many companies started to trial a hybrid model, permitting staff to split their time between the office and another location. Across a range of sectors, many of the UK’s largest office occupiers have shifted to this middle-way working pattern, from the big four accountancy firms to major tech companies. Deloitte’s 20,000 UK employees were told in June they could decide “when, where and how they work” following the success of remote working during Covid.

Very few large corporates now expect staff to return to their desks for five days a week, with the exception of some major investment banks, who have been the loudest proponents of the return-to-office mantra.

The end of the space race

Remote working in 2021 also offered companies a chance to downsize their offices and slash their rent bills. Capita, one of the major providers of outsourced services to the UK government, announced in the spring it would close more of its offices to make bigger cost savings.

Sir Martin Sorrell’s advertising and marketing firm, S4 Capital, told investors in the summer it had “terminated a number of office leases”, adding it was developing its hybrid office model to suit its workers, who it described as “digital natives”.

Meanwhile NatWest said it expects just 13% of its 64,000 staff to work full time in its offices in future. A third of the bank’s employees will be allowed to live and work anywhere in the UK and will only have to attend a NatWest building twice a month.

Winners and losers

Working parents, people with caring responsibilities, and some disabled workers are among those who have welcomed the widespread shift to flexible working, which they have long demanded. However, employment experts warn that, without proper monitoring, the switch could worsen workplace gender inequality.

Traditionally, more women have requested flexible working than men, and analysts caution that employers will have to ensure that those who attend the office less frequently do not miss out on opportunities for promotion.

A fifth (22%) of workers worry home working could affect their promotion prospects, according to a recent survey for stockbroker AJ Bell. The poll also found the burden of childcare among home workers still falls disproportionately on mothers, with more than a third (36%) of women with children under 16 reporting they do the lion’s share of childcare during work hours, compared with 19% of men.

Stressed mother working from home coping with work and bored daughter in quarantine.
A poll found the burden of childcare among home workers still falls disproportionately to mothers. Photograph: Samuel Wordley/Alamy

There is also concern about the effect on pay. Evie, an executive assistant from Essex who did not want to give her surname, has enjoyed working from home, but said she was being offered lower salaries by prospective employers than before the pandemic.

“It’s been said to me in an interview [the salary was lower] because I’d be working from home and wouldn’t have to commute,” she said. “It’s definitely a game a few employers are playing. They’ll get you to sign the contract, but when restrictions change and we go back to the office, I know they won’t put the money up.”

The working week

Once the slow and steady return to the office began in the spring, it became clear that workers were ditching their commute on Mondays and Fridays. In a national trend, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday became the busiest days of the week for office visits, according to regular analysis during 2021 by real estate consultancy Remit Consulting.

“The pattern so far during the pandemic has been for Thursdays to be as busy as Wednesdays, and sometimes busier,” said Lorna Landells of Remit Consulting, adding that Friday was slipping behind as an office day. If this change becomes permanent, it will have lasting implications for transport companies and the city-centre service businesses – from sandwich shops and coffee bars to hairdressers and dry-cleaners – who depend on passing trade.

Some companies and some countries – including the governments of Spain and Scotland – are considering going further, and taking a fresh look at four-day week through pilot schemes.

Durham-based online bank Atom is one of the few employers which has taken the leap. It moved all of its 400 staff to a four-day week, with no change in salary, at the start of November. The company said its operations and customer service have not been impacted by the change, although it had seen a 500% surge in job applications.

“Our adoption of a four-day working week has been a huge success, and we are proud of how well our employees have adapted,” said Anne-Marie Lister, Atom’s chief people officer. “We firmly believe that a four-day week is the future of work for many.”

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Staff walkout

For some, the future of work means handing in their notice. In what has been termed “the great resignation”, more than a quarter of workers reported they were actively planning to change jobs in the coming months.

Having stayed in posts where they were unhappy during the height of the pandemic, employees have begun to look for new roles, according to a survey of 6,000 workers by the recruitment firm Randstad UK. Others have been spurred on to look for a new employer by high levels of job vacancies and higher pay offers from those desperate to recruit.

For now, power looks to be in the hands of employees – not their employers – and they know what they want: more flexibility about where and when they work. Many will benefit from a better work-life balance, but the repercussions for city centres and society will be felt for some time to come.


Joanna Partridge

The GuardianTramp

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