When the UK’s lockdown measures were first introduced on March 23, the nation was told they must work from home where possible. Kitchen tables were quickly turned to desks, and Zoom hang outs replaced tea queue catch ups. And while key workers continued their workplace commutes, the 8.4million people who couldn't successfully do their jobs from home were furloughed.
As lockdown restrictions ease, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that those who could not work from home previously should now be "actively encouraged to go to work" in England.
But with government guidelines changing at such a rapid pace, it’s hardly surprising that so many of us feel left in the dark about what returning to work on the ‘other side’ will actually look like. So, what can we expect from our workplaces post-lockdown?
The UK government is still encouraging those who can work from home to do so, and there hasn’t yet been official guidance about when offices have to reopen. This, obviously, makes it hard to predict when a full return to the workplace might occur.
Nick Pollitt, managing director at commercial workspace solutions company Diamond Interiors, thinks it all depends on whether the R (infection) rate continues to slow. "We might see small teams being encouraged to return from the end of June to July," he tells Cosmopolitan. "Some organisations are saying August at the very earliest."
If and when workers do return to offices, how would social distancing measures be put in place? New government guidance asks that companies redesign office spaces to better facilitate two metre social distancing. This might include creating one way walk-throughs, opening more entrances and exits, and changing seating layouts. We may also see staggered start times or shift rotas (hello, 6am starts), as well as the end of meeting rooms as we know them. Oh, and you can forget getting in a small lift with other people.
Rosie Haslem, Director at architecture and design studio Spacelab, has been conducting research on work habits during the crisis, and thinks that companies will also be forced to take a more "holistic" approach to returning to the office. That means taking employees' individual preferences and home working situations into account. Gone are the days of strict hours and inflexible working from home policies, essentially.
With Twitter recently announcing that employees can now work from home indefinitely, could coronavirus spell the death of the office as we know it? "The working world will never be the same again," says Nick. “We predict a huge surge in home working and flexible working requests. The majority of offices have likely proved they can work successfully (and safely) from home, so what have companies got to lose?”
Rosie also thinks it’ll be more about balancing remote working with in-office collaboration. “We’re going to settle somewhere in the middle. It’ll be about the individual,” she tells Cosmopolitan. A recent survey from Spacelab found that UK employers are missing face-to-face time as well as socialising with colleagues - making this "a huge opportunity to rethink the future of work."
With high-street shops, department stores and shopping centres now allowed to reopen in England on June 15th, we need only take a look at our supermarkets for an idea of what post-lockdown retail might look like. Think queue systems, restrictions on the number of customers entering the store at one time and social distancing signs everywhere.
One thing retail workers can also wave goodbye to is changing rooms. Department stores like John Lewis and Marks & Spencers have announced that they’ll be keeping their fitting rooms closed for the time being. And as for those who opt to try on clothes at home, staff will be required to store returned items for 72 hours before putting them back out on the shop floor. What's more, under new government guidelines for safe working, ‘close-contact’ services such as make-up demonstrations, manicures and bra-fitting will also be suspended until further notice.
According to Ross Haxton, Creative and Brand Services Director at brand consultancy GLIMMA, staff wellness will be a key factor in reopening shops, with masks and gloves amongst the many hygiene measures set to be rolled in. “Shifts are going to have to be introduced if staff are wearing masks [to give them time without it], and maybe you’ll have to have [more] staff breaks,” he tells Cosmopolitan. “Shops may also have to think about prolonging opening hours so customers can come in while socially distancing.”
He also explained that, with retailers having to work harder than ever before to attract customers and stay relevant in an uncertain market, there’ll be a greater focus on physical stores – and staff will play a crucial role in that. “A brand's strength is about the people who work for it,” he says. “I think brands are going to have to work even harder to retain good staff, and that’s all about incentives and training.”
The hospitality sector has undoubtedly been one of hardest-hit industries during the pandemic. And with pubs, bars and clubs amongst the first businesses to be closed back on 20th March, many customers are itching to get back to their favourite coffee and cocktail spots. So when can we expect the hospitality industry to be up-and-running again?
According to UK government guidelines, the earliest pubs and restaurants with outdoor spaces can reopen in England is 22nd June (brought forward from 4th July), subject to review. And don't expect it to feel like 'normal' either – with two metre social distancing rules in place, capacity is likely to have to be slashed by 50-75%.
Pub and bar staff can expect to have far less interaction with customers, since going up to the bar is likely to be swapped for table service (à la the Spoons app) to facilitate contactless ordering and payment, and reduce the number of people waiting in one place. Staff are also set to be asked to wear masks and gloves, to clean surfaces regularly and keep each table stocked with hand sanitiser.
As for restaurants, they may follow the lead of some European countries by introducing dining pods or perspex shields between tables, as well as a slash in the number of people allowed in restaurants at the same time. We might even expect to see an attempt at al fresco dining during the summer, which, as we know from the great British weather, feels a little unreliable.
With only provisional dates and speculation to go by, it’s difficult to predict exactly how the workplace will look post-lockdown. What we can expect is that working from home is likely to become a major part of many office-based jobs. Retail will refocus on the customer experience, with staff set to play a key role in this. The hospitality industry will have to become even more innovative to weather the coronavirus storm and implement social distancing measures. Only one thing’s for certain: Work as we know it has changed forever.
Cosmopolitan UK's July issue is out now and available for purchase online and via Readly. You can also SUBSCRIBE HERE or read on Apple News+. Find our podcast 'All The Way With...' on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and the Acast app.
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