Q: Given what the crisis has shown us about working from home – namely its ease and effectiveness – do you see a future where most UK employees work remotely? What would the implications be?
A: If lockdown had only lasted four weeks, it would have been quickly forgotten about and life would have picked up from where we left it on March 23. But after 17 weeks of Zoom calls and social distancing, I’m beginning to wonder whether we will ever be the same again.
Suddenly everyone was told to stay at home to save lives and many worked long hours from home to save their businesses.
For a lot of companies, April and May 2020 will be remembered as one the most creative times in their history. Two years’ development took place in the space of two months. The sense of urgency encouraged command and control companies to abandon long-winded processes and get things done by giving frontline colleagues the freedom to make decisions. No wonder home working has been seen as such a success.
We now know that it’s a lot easier to shut the country down than get it moving again. We at Timpson managed to close all our 2,150 shops within 24 hours, but it took two months to reopen them and could take at least another six before we see business getting back to pre-Covid levels.
Reopening an office is equally difficult, with a temperature check in the reception area, a one-way system and a new layout needed to make sure colleagues keep their distance and keep safe. Office buildings don’t have enough space to accommodate everyone who was there before lockdown, so an increase in remote working seems inevitable.
I suspect the long-term benefits of working from home will outweigh the shortcomings. People who value swapping a two-hour journey to work for more time with their family will outnumber the extroverts keen to get back on the train and meet for a couple of pints after office hours.
For most, getting to know their neighbours much better and spending quality time at home has been one of the biggest benefits of lockdown. Children might have missed an important part of their education, but they will have benefitted from a stronger attachment with mum and dad.
But for some households, staying at home has put a severe strain on their relationship. In 2021, we are likely to see an increase in divorce, a rise in children coming into care and more mental health problems.
Have you noticed how we are splitting into Covid hawks and doves? Hawks who are keen to double guess the next guideline and doves who only feel comfortable if they are sticking well within the rules. For many months, doves will be reluctant to go on a train, fly abroad, brave the supermarket or go back to the office. Canary Wharf may be a lot quieter for a long time.
All this might be good news for Zoom, but the change in lifestyle makes a major difference to city centre economics. Timpson is starting to recover from the pandemic with our overall drop in sales now only 15pc below last year, but our shops in the City of London were 87pc down. No wonder Pret a Manger has been having a tough time.
Despite the obvious benefits of operating from home, a lot of work in 2022 will still be done in offices and factories. Companies require a central focus and colleagues need to meet the others in their team. I’m looking forward to our next board meeting, where we can get together round the same table (Zoom and FaceTime miss the magic of meeting face to face).
Working from home is no longer just for the self employed; flexible working is now a reality. The pandemic has probably produced a permanent shift in the way we live our lives. As a result, the public is changing how and where they spend their money and business must adjust to this dimension of the new normal.
Sir John Timpson is chairman of the high-street services provider, Timpson
Send him a question at [email protected]