COVID-19: How the year when the bedroom became the office may have changed work forever

·4-min read

Rush hour has a new meaning in Jim Bloomfield's home.

It has new meaning in homes nationwide.

Instead of a half-hour drive or run into his Leeds city centre office, he now takes his son Seb to nursery before settling down to work in a newly-fashioned home office.

His job at Deloitte often meant long hours.

"I don't think I would welcome a five day a week return" he smiles.

"Rather than working at home one day, I can now work at home five days a week.

"It means I get to do the nursery run every day, I see my son every day, there aren't those train journeys to schedule, everything has changed."

He's not alone.

While there's much about the last year people want to leave behind, the change to working life isn't always one of them.

According to latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, 30% of the country are still working exclusively from home, while research from think-tank Demos found that four fifths of the working population want to keep some remote working.

But while many feel it's improved their work-life balance, upping family time and dialling down the stress, there have been costs too: loneliness, loss of company culture and a dearth of creativity and collaboration.

Employers now face a challenge and opportunity.

How to move forward in a way that harnesses the positives, eliminates the negatives and retains happy staff in a world where expectations have shifted.

Mr Bloomfield's employer Deloitte has already made a start.

It has permanently closed its old, more traditional, office in Manchester and replaced it with a bright, modern WeWork "collaboration space".

Out go the rows of desks, in come pool tables, coffee bars, sofas and even a library area.

It's the face of the company's new 'hybrid working' model, as partner Jo Ahmed explains: "We're giving [staff] a choice, about when, where and how they work."

As big name after big name, from BT to Lloyds to Aviva, all announce they'll be cutting down on office space, in staff terms flexible working may well be the new price of remaining competitive.

"I think all businesses should look at flexible working and hybrid working," says Ms Ahmed. "All the data is showing us that's what employees want."

"For us that means that we can hopefully retain our best people, and also attract people."

But not all businesses agree.

Many still think an office culture is essential for staff to learn from each other and maintain good relations with clients.

The estate agent Knight Frank is one of them.

"Without being overtly proscriptive," explains Alistair Elliott, senior partner and group chairman, once the pandemic has passed, "the default position is the office".

"I am without any doubt at all that in order for a people-related organisation to develop and thrive in the future, a space where people go to work, meet, collaborate, exchange ideas, train is absolutely essential."

The impacts of these choices reach far beyond just the lives of the staff involved.

Working from home is largely a white collar privilege - possible only in professional, desk based jobs.

While it may have brought an economic boom to more affluent commuter belt towns, it hollowed out city centres, leaving devastated small businesses in its wake.

Classic Cleaners dry cleaners in Leeds is just one such business that has taken a severe hit from workers like Mr Bloomfield staying at home.

Thomas Hutchinson's family have run the business for nearly 50 years and have never seen it so quiet.

"It's affected us massively," says Mr Hutchinson.

"The offices are obviously out, they're all at home, so everyone's in stay at home clothes.

"Nobody's going out for meals, so no one's getting dressed up so no one's bringing anything in for cleaning."

"We come in more for the sake of routine if I'm honest. I've only had a pair of trousers in all day."

It's still unclear if workers will have the legal right to refuse to return to the office.

What is clear is that the year where the bedroom became the boardroom may well have changed work forever.