Lockdown has inevitably changed how we look at work and may well have accelerated the possibility of remote working becoming the norm for many people. It is not a stretch to imagine that, in the social distancing but lockdown free future that awaits us, large open plan office spaces will become anachronistic relics of a bygone era of employment. After all, office space companies were already feeling the bite of technological and societal movement.
What will the social distancing compliant office of the post-lockdown future look like? Will we have plastic dividers between every desk? Can we organise staff members to come in on rotation to ensure that space between colleagues is kept to a ‘safe’ distance? In many ways this relationship would not be too different for the larger multinational or multi-office companies as they are used to communicating and working with colleagues who are not in the same physical location.
This could lead to companies downsizing their operations as they decide to minimise the costs of office rental by either going for full remote working or moving into a smaller space. This, of course puts increased pressure on office companies as they must cope with the loss of clients that have either closed down due to the pandemic or are simply leaving.
The rumoured lockdown phasing out policy is that companies, in the short term, should only return to their offices if they cannot continue to work from home. However, with smaller companies this new way of working could place too much strain on the personal relationships that are vital for the work of a small company. Will they be punished if they call all their employees to return to work earlier than suggested? Will employees have support if they wish to follow government advice, but their company does not?
On top of the issues in the actual workplace, there is also the question of commuting to the office. This may not be a major concern for those outside of major cities who do not have to rely on public transport to get into work but the pandemic and concerns about a second peak will have a significant effect on those who will need to get to work in places like London or Manchester.
For example, even before the official lockdown we saw the effects of a reduced tube service on those who still needed to get to work. The system was obviously overcrowded and putting all those trying to get to work at risk of infection. It is not necessary to address the reasons behind the early reduction of service, but we must learn the lessons from that problem before we are ready to announce a free-for-all on returning to work in London.
Of course, we cannot stay locked down forever, timidly waiting for the economy to crash into oblivion. In the last few days we have discovered that the UK government is paying for the salaries of almost a quarter of our workforce. This is quite clearly unsustainable and public debt has once again ballooned out of all proportion.
It is therefore good news that SAGE, the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, is considering taking on a subgroup that will be wholly focused on the economic aspect of the lockdown and the best way to end it in a way that will jumpstart our stalled economy. The lockdown may have been necessary to protect public health, but its end is also necessary to protect the economy which funds our public health. We cannot have a functioning healthcare system without a stable economy. We must end the lockdown, but it is not as easy as simply opening your front door.