Did The End Of Covid Restrictions Bring About A Widespread Return To The Office?

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Most of the Covid-19 restrictions the UK has endured for the past couple of years are now over. Free testing is about to end and the government is now trying to treat Covid like any other respiratory illness. This even applies to the previous rules on self-isolation – if you have Covid now then it’s advisable to stay at home and not go to work, or travel on public transport, but the government will no longer be taking any action if you do. The message is that we all have to live with Covid.

But one of the biggest changes for most professionals during the pandemic was the requirement to work from home. As the restrictions vanish are companies really returning to the way they were organised in 2019 or has two years of working from home (WFH) changed the expectation of both employers and employees?

Government ministers have urged people to ‘get back to the office’ because collaboration isn’t possible with remote working. But political messages are rarely focused on business alone – there is a political will to move on from the pandemic and the traditional commute is still seen by many as a return to normal.

Office occupancy rates give a better picture of what is really happening. Last month saw the highest levels of office occupancy since the pandemic started with the property analysts Remit Consulting measuring 27.5% occupancy. A look at the Remit data shows that occupancy through most of 2021 was around 10%, increasing at the end of the year, but then dropping to almost zero in January 2022 when the Omicron variant was sweeping the country.

It’s clear that some people are returning to their office, but even those now visiting the office are not at their desk from Monday to Friday as before. This is also clearly visible across the customer service environment where most contact centres remain far from their 2019 levels of occupancy – anecdotal evidence from industry analysts estimates that the major customer service specialists still have over 70% of their teams working from home – even now.

It’s difficult to get precise data on this because companies are naturally wary about sharing their ‘return to normal’ strategy and the situation is also very fluid – companies embracing hybrid WFH options are not returning to a 2019 situation, even if employees can now sometimes be in the office.

Our own data from last year was quoted in the FT – just 4 of 107 contact centre managers and directors predicted that there would ever be a complete return to the office. This situation appears to be playing out in 2022. Only the contact centres in the Philippines appear to be returning to what used to be normal and that’s because of a government mandate telling them that WFH will no longer be allowed from April 1st. How will this affect the industry in the Philippines if the customer service companies are now told how they must operate by a government?

This prediction of 2022, published in January by Contact Center Pipeline gives a stronger sense of where customer service is heading. Every single analyst and executive questioned in this article says that there will never be a complete return to the contact centre. They all talk about getting a WFH strategy under control, building out more flexible workforce management, and accepting that this hybrid working model is now permanent.

There are several clear messages coming from these surveys and analyst reports:

  • Offices still have very low occupancy in March 2022.
  • Employee expectations around flexibility have changed, largely because of the pandemic and the opportunity to experience work without commuting.
  • Employers need to offer more flexibility around WFH if they want to attract talent.
  • Very few contact centres have any plans to return to 100% in-centre employees.

It seems that many of these companies have finally learned what Sens̩e has always understood Рallowing people to work from home can create a more productive and satisfied team. And if you know how to design WFH solutions that enable teams to work together and be engaged, then why maintain an office at all?

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