Remote Work Won’t Be Going Away Once Offices Are Open Again

After joining U.K. insurance group Aviva Plc last year, Danny Harmer spent just a few weeks with her new team before the first Covid-19 lockdown. If she has her way, that will be the most time the group ever spends together. Harmer, Aviva’s personnel chief, is figuring out the post-Covid working environment for the company’s 16,000 British employees, spread among 14 offices from London to the Scottish city of Perth. And what she’s found is that while many miss the collaboration that can happen in the office, they also like the freedom of working remotely. “There’s a change in mindset brought on by the pandemic,” she says. “People have experienced it and go, ‘Yes, I want some of this.’”

A recent Aviva survey found that 95% of its staff would choose either full-time remote work or a flexible home-office split once lockdowns end. The company is now attempting to institute what Harmer calls a “smart” working policy, closing some offices and allowing everyone the option of logging in from home, with access to redesigned company facilities when they feel the need.

That flexibility makes Aviva something of a pioneer among companies grappling with the post-Covid workplace. Some are embracing—or at least accepting—a hybrid home-office configuration, with HSBC Holdings Plc predicting a 40% reduction in its property footprint over the long term and Lloyds Banking Group Plc projecting a 20% cut in office space by 2023. Others, though, are less excited about the idea: David Solomon, chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., has called remote work “an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible.”

Jenny Burns, a partner at London consulting firm Fluxx, says the issue of where and when employees work is among the biggest challenges businesses face today. While some traditionalists believe they can return to their pre-pandemic setup, she cautions against that. “If you slip back into old ways quickly, you will lose employees,” says Burns, who advises big companies on reimagining their working environments.

Speak Media, a 20-person provider of multimedia content to corporate clients, has walked away from its London office lease and is pressing ahead with a hybrid plan. Co-founder George Theohari wants employees to keep talking while working at home, testing short, focused virtual meetings and impromptu breakout sessions. Longer term, he plans to rent space in a London coworking facility so staff can gather there for team get-togethers and crucial client meetings—or simply because they want to get off the couch for a day.

Theohari says the point is giving people freedom to work where they’re most likely to thrive, taking into account domestic circumstances and personality. “Younger team members’ experience of the pandemic, compared to mine, may be much more negative,” he says. He cites, for instance, his own good fortune at being able to spend less time commuting and more time with his family vs. the frustration of people in their 20s, who are more likely to live alone in small apartments. To address that issue, he has hired a workplace coach to help staff talk through problems. “As an employer, you always have a duty to care for your teams,” he says. “That’s been brought sharply into focus by this.”

At Aviva, Harmer envisages that some meetings will require in-person attendance. But many others will become all-remote to mitigate concerns that people who come to the office regularly will be more visible to leaders and will jump to the front of the line for promotions. The increased flexibility, she says, will make it easier for the company to recruit from a wider talent pool. An internal leadership candidate who had balked at the prospect of a long commute to London recently reconsidered the idea as she now has the option of traveling to the city when necessary while mostly working from her home in Norwich, in the east of England. And that will ultimately benefit the entire business, Harmer says. “There is a competitive advantage,” she says, “in anything that makes employees look at you and go, ‘That sounds like a great place to work.’”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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