By Michael Cockburn, co-founder of Desana
Until this year, the concept of the office had remained largely unchanged since the Victorian era. Prior to COVID, only 17% of finance and accounting professionals in the UK worked remotely once or more a week – half the national average. Now, not only have millions been working from home for months, but the office as an idea is getting a thorough shake-up.
The most dramatic recent example has been from Standard Chartered, which announced that more than half of their 85,000 employees would be allowed a choice of workspaces, including an option to 'work near home' in convenient flexspace, with plans to roll this out to almost all of their staff by 2023.
So what is 'work near home' and why is it gaining traction across the sector, compared to the obvious alternatives?
'Work near home' means that companies pay for their staff to work in a workspace that is convenient to where they live, usually in a coworking space or a flexible workspace. Instead of renting a whole office for years at a time, they typically pay for monthly memberships for only the staff that need them.
This has an obvious financial benefit, especially given the expense of underutilised real estate: estimates suggest that – pre-COVID – as much as $750 billion was wasted every year through unused office space in the US alone.
In addition, this ties in with the cultural shift caused by the last 10 months of working from home: in a recent PWC survey, 7 out of 10 financial services employers in the US said that they anticipated that 60% of their workforce would work remotely for at least once a week.
It's also something that employees want: 86% want to continue to work from home for at least part of their working week post-COVID.
The biggest reason for this is the commute. In fact the further away someone lives from the office, the more likely they are to have enjoyed working from home, with 84% of those who lived more than two hours away from their work saying they had had a positive experience of working from home, compared to only 56% who lived 15 minutes away from the office.
For these reasons, it might be tempting to get rid of offices completely and have staff work from home permanently.
However, work from home has many issues associated with it which make this a false economy. Most obvious among these are the negative toll that permanent home work has on employees.
As work has become a physical part of the domestic sphere, employees have struggled to clock off at the end of the day and to keep their work and personal lives separate. The National Bureau of Economic Research has found that the average working day has increased by 48.5 minutes during lockdown – equivalent to two whole extra working days a month. When people can't show they are working through their physical presence in the office, they are instead judged on the work they have produced, perhaps leading them to put in additional hours.
In addition, many financial services staff say that the division between work and life has grown blurrier, with 1 in 4 saying that if they continue working from home, they will need clearer rules on when people are supposed to be working.
All of this has implications for staff burning out and for employees struggling with mental health issues, particularly when added to feelings of loneliness caused by missing out on normal office interactions.
Added to this is the fact that work from home disproportionately affects certain groups, most strikingly those early in their careers and parents. Younger workers are more likely to live in flat-shares where they might not even have space at the kitchen table to work, let alone a dedicated home office.
For parents, working from home can mean juggling parental responsibilities and a full time job, a burden that falls disproportionately on working mothers, with the Office of National Statistics reporting that mums were only able to get one hour of uninterrupted work done for every three uninterrupted hours their partner worked.
This is a particular problem for the financial industry where gender equality is still a long way off: women make up only 17% of Financial Conduct Authority approved individuals, a figure that has shifted little in the last 15 years. By leaning into home working for all, companies are a risk of only further exacerbating the gender imbalance.
Finally, remote working makes it difficult for everyone to collaborate. No matter how productive you might be working by yourself at home, everyone can agree that meetings of any degree of complexity are much harder through the medium of video call. If only for this reason, offices need to be a part of the world of work going forwards as a space where people can meet and collaborate.
By contrast, work near home means employees can access high-quality, convenient workspace which allows them to get out of the house and work alongside other people, including colleagues who choose to work in the same space.
This helps to combat many of the problems with working from home, while retaining its benefits, giving employees what they need and helping to reduce real estate costs.
Implementing new proptech solutions such as Desana will be key to managing this new 'work anywhere' revolution across corporate workforces and real estate portfolios, allowing simple, easy access to flexible workspace operators without the hassle of managing multiple invoices or contracts.
Of course, work near home is not a solution for all employees, all the time. There will be times when staff need to meet a client, access secure networks or simply work with their whole team in one place. On the other hand, there may be times when they need to stay at home for an Amazon parcel or the boiler repair man or simply fancy a pyjama day.
But work near home is a much-needed option that gives employees more flexibility and a more modern way of working. As we start to see more of these real estate solutions take hold in the financial services industry, we can wave the Victorian idea of the office goodbye.