COVID response: opportunity to build back better

Response to COVID-19 an opportunity to build back better: Data released on first day of CBI Annual Conference suggests majority of firms see response to COVID-19 as an opportunity to build back better.

Almost seven in ten of respondents anticipate increasing activities to ‘support net zero target’.
Nearly six in ten respondents think ‘people will shop close to where they live’.
Firms predict widespread adoption of hybrid home/office working patterns, with offices recalibrated for collaborating and connecting with colleagues.

An emerging, positive picture of how businesses will operate following the global pandemic has been revealed in a special survey by CBI/Ipsos MORI published on the eve of the CBI’s Annual Conference.

A poll of 573 businesses, sponsored by Accenture and Hays Recruitment, suggests workplaces and cultures have shifted drastically. Offices will survive, but not as they were.

Fresh data from respondents, including firms of all sizes and sectors, indicates major shifts in attitudes towards home-working, recruitment and business travel.

Meanwhile, making progress towards net-zero, improving work/life balance and strengthening employee relationships are all strong indicators of firms’ intentions to build back better. Increasing innovation is also revealed to be one of the key positive aspects arising from the pandemic.

The office, revisited

More than three quarters of respondents (79%) said in 2019 their staff were entirely or mostly working in an office or workplace away from home. Looking beyond 2021, businesses expect that figure to be just over one quarter (28%), with almost half (47%) expecting staff to split their time evenly between home and the workplace.

Working from home is seen to be positive in terms of attracting and retaining staff, with 53% of respondents reporting a positive impact (14% negative). But qualitative research suggests offices remain vital for collaborating and connecting with colleagues.

On average, respondents expect their office space to reduce by 18% compared with 2019. Respondents anticipate using significantly less space for desk-based activities and client meetings. Opinion was more evenly balanced regarding other office uses, such as collaboration with colleagues, training and team-building.

Qualitative research also revealed some businesses are still weighing their options. More than half of firms responding (56%) say their top priority for office locations beyond 2021 is staying at or near current office locations.

Remote working is not without its challenges. The ability to lead, manage, and train staff has been diminished, the data reveals. Specifically, the ability of junior staff to learn from listening and observing senior colleagues is more challenging.

Josh Hardie, CBI Deputy Director-General, said:

“Despite the huge challenge of operating through the pandemic, this survey shows firms are committed to listening to employees and customers, innovating at speed to build back better. The rewards for those who get this right will be substantial, with clear benefits for both companies and individuals.

“Remote working has brought huge benefits. It has not led to a collapse in productivity. Often lost travel time has disappeared, together with the stress and carbon emissions of the morning commute. Many local communities have been rediscovered.

“Yet while Covid-19 may have triggered a mass migration from UK workplaces, talk of the death of the office is premature. They continue to offer real benefits, particularly for welcoming new staff, training and collaboration. So a new, flexible balance must be found – the office will survive, but not as we know it.”

Olly Benzecry, Managing Director of Accenture, UK & Ireland said:

“On the whole businesses have responded amazingly to remote working. Enabled by technology, they have managed to keep their people connected, sustain business operations and maintain productivity levels through an incredibly challenging time.

“What’s equally as encouraging is the thought that business leaders are giving to what the future of the workplace should be. Particularly, how we build back better for performance, for our people and for our planet with hybrid models of workplace.”

Mark Staniland, Regional Managing Director at Hays, said:

“The COVID-19 crisis has brought sweeping change to so many aspects of our lives – where we work being one of them and it’s evident that employers expect to see this change reflected when attracting and retaining talent.

As remote work has become much more widely adopted, businesses have the opportunity to open up their talent pool to professionals who aren’t close to an office location. For employers who are struggling to find the skills they need, this is particularly advantageous to help support talent attraction.

For businesses, there’s a lot to consider when recruiting for permanent remote roles, so I’d urge employers to objectively think about which roles in your team, both current and future, could be well-suited to having no set location.”

Widening recruitment horizons, travelling with purpose

Remote working is seen to enable a greater geographical spread of the workforce. Around two-thirds (63%) responding expect more applications from people who live more than 1-2 hours from head office compared to 2019 and 25% expect more applications from people who live outside the UK.

Business travel was commonplace pre-COVID, with 88% saying staff regularly travelled within the UK for work and 57% internationally. Beyond 2021, 65% of responding businesses think it is likely that ‘because of video conferencing, it will no longer be necessary for [their] staff to travel within the UK to meet colleagues and clients’. International travel looks set to be curtailed too.

As with remote working, there has been a huge shift in mindset. Business travel is likely to be a considered rather than a default choice.

Staying online, buying local

Respondents also believe recent months have hastened innovation among UK firms, with rapid adoption of new tech proving vital to both support operations and capitalise on a surge in online activity – a trend expected to endure.

Seven in ten of firms responding (71%) think it is likely that ‘consumers who switched to shopping online during the lockdown will keep doing so once the pandemic has passed’. Elsewhere, nearly six in ten (59%) respondent businesses think it is likely that ‘people will shop close to where they live rather than shopping further afield’.

Businesses want to build back better

Overwhelmingly, the data strongly suggests companies want to grasp the opportunity presented by the crisis to reassess their positive impact upon society. Chiefly, firms are keen to capitalise on improving employees’ work-life balance, reducing carbon emissions and accelerating innovation.

Firms responding cited the following specific activities beyond 2021 compared to 2019:

67% say they expect to have increased activities to ‘support the net zero carbon emissions reduction target’ compared to 2019 (5% decrease).
67% say they will have increased activities ‘to make our business more diverse and inclusive’ (1% decrease).
57% say they will have increased activities ‘to support our local communities’ (3% decrease).

Josh Hardie, CBI Deputy Director-General, said:

“Good businesses have a long-standing commitment to acting responsibly and showing their worth to society. The pandemic has accelerated these efforts.

“Working side-by-side with the public sector, firms delivered Nightingale Hospitals at lightning speed. Business transformed their operations to make vital PPE for frontline workers and ventilators for patients. Now, alongside academia, enterprise leads the way in developing rapid testing and the first new vaccines.

“Reputations are forged in a crisis. Business have once again proved they are fundamental to society. This will continue post pandemic with a welcome long-term focus on benefits firms can bring to people, planet and place.”

Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos MORI, said:

“In a few short months the pandemic has dramatically changed business life in the UK. What our latest research shows is that while parts of the economy face massive disruption, elsewhere there are likely permanent positive changes. These include less commuting, more distributed work forces, a better carbon footprint, a re-imagining of offices, and potentially better quality of life for employees.”

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