Back to Work, Back to Reality

Jim Preen, Director of Crisis Management at YUDU Sentinel, considers why the return to work could well be a very different experience to the one we left behind

At the end of May, approximately 8.7 million jobs from more than one million employers were furloughed as part of the government’s job retention scheme. Adding the furloughed figures to those who work in the public sector means the state is paying the wages for almost half the UK workforce. Furloughing costs the public purse around £14 billion a month so it’s hardly surprising the government is setting out workplace guidelines allowing offices to re-open.

This involves some scary judgment calls on the part of both government and employers if a second wave of Covid-19 is to be avoided. Some of the changes to the way we work will be temporary, but others will be permanent as firms are finding out to their cost and their benefit.

Having had it drummed into our heads for weeks that we must stay home, isolate and social distance it’s a moot point whether people will want to rush back to the office.

The brave souls that do venture out will find a very different work environment. Out will go office canteens, hot desking, crammed lifts and the other norms of modern office life. In will come protective screens, face masks, a two-metre distancing between desks, staggered work times, and plastic screens.

No switch is going to be thrown sending us rocketing back to January and what was once normal office life. A return to work will be a gradual progression with many stops and starts along the way.

Inevitably the discussion has centred on how the big industries and larger employers will operate. For some, it makes grim reading.


Financial Sector

Banks appear to have surprised themselves at how easily they have adjusted to remote working. Good for them, but it’s a terrifying prospect for the owners of large office blocks.

Barclays’ boss, Jes Staley, said Covid-19 would have a lasting impact on where staff work and hinted the bank might vacate much of its HQ at Canary Wharf.

He said: “It’s an extraordinary thing that technology has allowed us to keep this bank so functional, given the fact that 70,000 people are doing it from their kitchens.

“You’re going to find we use much more significantly our branches as alternate sites for investment bankers and call centre workers and people in the corporate bank. Putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past.”


Airlines have been crying the blues and who can blame them with demand almost completely absent and thousands of planes parked on runways or in storage. In the UK, BA is to axe around 12,000 jobs and is asking some workers to take a 60% pay cut. The airline has said it may no longer operate out of Gatwick airport. Virgin Atlantic is to cut more than 3,000 jobs and is indicating that it too may quit Gatwick.

Social distancing at an airport is a manageable challenge, but on a 747 that might mean passenger numbers sliced in half, leaving airlines wondering whether it’s worth taking to the sky.

And what about business travel, the airlines most profitable sector? With firms now conducting Zoom and Skype conference calls as never before, there has to be a big question mark over whether executives will resume scuttling to meetings across the globe. Organisations will be seeking cheaper options that smart technology can now readily provide.


The automotive sector

Car makers are a little more bullish about their prospects after all a car is a perfect self-isolation unit. In China, factories are re-opening with clear guidelines as to how to do this safely. Work areas are sanitised and cleaned extensively, and workers are kept apart. With so many aspects of car manufacturing now automated this is not as problematic as it first appears. Inevitably, staff wear face masks and their temperature is taken when they arrive at work.



It’s not just the big boys who are having to adapt to survive. There are currently around 5.9 million small firms in the UK which make up a staggering 99% of all businesses. They account for three-fifths of all employment and around half of all turnover in the UK private sector.

These astonishing figures go some way to explain why the government announced a micro-loan scheme for small businesses, to alleviate the impact of the lockdown, and allowed firms to furlough workers paying staff up to 80% of their salary. If UK small businesses go belly up, then the country is in real trouble.

SMEs cover a massive range of sectors so implementing government rules allowing them to open up will be easy for some and a nightmare for others.

If staff are working successfully from home, permanent office space may no longer be required with staff attending hub meetings at rented conference rooms.

At the office, there will be an upswing in cleaning budgets with desks, toilets, kitchens and communal areas all in need of constant cleansing to keep the virus at bay. Firms will have to procure the right cleaning products and staff will be provided with masks and perhaps other personal protection equipment.

The number of people allowed in an office, or in corridors and lifts may be restricted and there will likely be one-way traffic areas. It is anticipated that on a typical floor plan there will only be forty to sixty per cent capacity. Other areas may need to be reconfigured with perhaps canteens turned into workspaces.

Other changes could be dramatic and instant. When ‘track and trace’ finally gets underway, if a staff member is diagnosed with the virus, then all colleagues would be forced to self-isolate at home with office life coming to a grinding halt once again.

Homeworking and the furloughing scheme have been lifelines for many small businesses, but there are some sectors with their collective heads in their hands.

The government is suggesting 22nd June as the date when pubs can start serving customers in beer gardens and other outdoor areas. But how do you enforce social distancing inside a pub, club or restaurant? The whole idea of the night-time economy is to bring people together not to spread them apart. Museums and galleries are still closed, which does seem an anomaly when many garden centres have reopened.

Coronavirus is proving a challenge to businesses both large and small and it’s still too early to say which sectors will thrive and which will see firms go to the wall.

Trying to establish a new normal, when working practises are changing at an eye-watering rate, means only one thing is for certain. It’s the agile and not necessarily the biggest businesses that will survive.