The ‘Legoland discovery centre’ replica of Birmingham City Centre has had thousands of mini-figures removed to reflect the city’s empty streets, as the COVID-19 crisis means that millions are asked to stay at home. The abandoned City Centre scene reflects how 1 in 3 of all businesses have closed under the COVID-19 regulation (1 in 2 in retail), with Birmingham being the hardest hit in the region (13,400 businesses) (Riley, 2020). Examples of closures include John Lewis, Waterstones, Primark and Arcadia Group.
Following the COVID-19 restrictions, there has also been the large-scale switch to home working. This has largely been in the knowledge-based sectors (e.g. public admin, professional services, information and communication sector). For other industrial sectors, it would be very difficult, if not impossible for employees to work from home. For example, in both the transportation and storage sector and accommodation and food services sector, only around 10% of people report ever being able to work from home (ONS, 2020). These two sectors include rail, road, air transport, shipping, warehousing, postal activities, hotels, bars and restaurants.
However, a recent ONS (2020) analysis of the 2019 Annual Population Survey (APS) found that even in the ‘information and communication sector and professional and scientific sector only 50% of employees reported that they have worked from home. The propensity for homeworking also differs by occupation with managerial jobs being more likely to work from home (Kitsos, 2020 – a full analysis of homeworking practices (by occupation) in the West Midlands). Furthermore, just because people can and do work from home on some occasions, this does not necessarily mean that this is done on an ongoing or regular basis. Therefore, the COVID-19 restrictions are expected to create significant disruption to the working practices of businesses that remain open, both in positive and negative ways.
Positive Impacts of Homeworking
The potential positive impacts of homeworking include:
- Giving employees the flexibility to work hours that suit them could make them more productive, especially if their family commitments change.
- There is a saving on commuting time, as employees do not have to travel to and from work, which can lead to an apparent reduction of stress. Since, the COVID-19 restrictions, public transport has fallen by as much as 70% in the region, as homeworking has led to public transport operators running reduced frequency services. Similarly, UK road travel has fallen to 1955 levels. Transport makes up 23% of global carbon emissions. These emissions have fallen in the short term, as well as, there being big drops in air pollution, noise pollution, traffic deaths and injuries (The Guardian, 2020).
- Conferences (in the form of online webinars), meetings and informal chats with colleagues have continued, using software such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Google Hangouts, TeamViewer and more. COVID-19 has meant that Zoom’s daily active user base grew by 67 per cent in the first three months of this year and in recent weeks has been downloaded more than 50 million times from the Google store alone. These video-conferencing facilities, enables users to read facial cues and body language, which adds an additional layer of connection, which can’t be achieved over the phone.
- In 2019, there were seven major transactions for office space in Birmingham city centre over 20,000 sq ft in 2019, totalling 499,110 sq ft (KWB, 2020). The largest transaction of the year was the pre-let of 110,780 sq ft at Platform 21 to the Secretary of State. The rents for the highest quality new-build office space cost on average £35 per sq ft (as of 2019). If employees learn to work effectively from home during the COVID-19 crisis, it may lead to a reduced need for large, expensive office spaces in the future.
The negative impacts of homeworking include:
- Many commentators believe that the switch to long-term homeworking could stall the UK’s productivity. A survey of more than 2,000 UK adults by Theta Financial Reporting found 26% feel they have not received the required training to do their job efficiently.
- Sending/receiving emails, database updates, replying to online messages, writing reports, filling in forms and answering calls are all common office tasks that would be possible on even some of the slowest home broadband links. However, video conferencing calls and multiple users in one household could strain existing broadband links, further impacting on productivity.
- One of the common issues with widespread remote working is the negative emotional impact, as staff feel isolated, there is a lack of technical and emotional support and loss of richness of communicated material (Mann, Varey and Button, 2000). Can video conferences, phone calls and remote access really make you feel like you are part of the office when you are not physically present? There is also the impact on home and family life. A recent email from the Dean of the Business School at the University of Birmingham observed that many colleagues are working – or indeed finding it difficult to work – in many different situations.
- As more businesses encourage staff to work from home amid the COVID-19 outbreak, a computer science lecturer at Loughborough University has urged workers to check their security settings. Dr Asma Adnane said remotely accessing sensitive business data causes additional cybersecurity risks, and she encouraged anyone planning on working from home to speak to their IT department first.
When can we expect the mini Lego-figures to return to our City-Centre streets?
On Sunday the 30th March, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries said that the UK’s lockdown measures could last up to six months, possibly longer; and even when restrictions are lifted, it may be a considerable amount of time before the country returns to ‘normal’. Furthermore, if employees are able to productively work from home during this period, permanent homeworking may become a future employment policy for businesses and organisations. Therefore, it is crucial that the region introduces policies to support homeworking practices, both for the short and long-term. Suggested policies include:
- Advice and support on suitable homeworking equipment and software to maximise productivity and ensure there is access to video-conferencing facilities.
- Advice and support on employment law, immigration, health and safety and data protection law for UK employers, as employers are responsible for the health and safety of all employees, including those working from home (ACAS, 2020).
- Advice and support made available on the negative emotional impacts of homeworking.
- Cybersecurity threats are generally higher for homeworking as individuals not connected via secured workplace networks. Encouragement and support for the use of secure connections such as a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which effectively encrypts data travelling between a user’s computer and the work network is needed.
- In the longer term, flexibility will be key to future office negotiations and occupancy decisions, with serviced and managed offices forming a major part of that (KWB, 2020). This should account for economic uncertainty and the likely increased appetite for hot-desking and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). For example, WeWork operates on a license model that can offer office space for any period – by the month or even by the hour.
The opinions presented here belong to the author rather than the University of Birmingham.
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