Working from where ? May 2021

Whilst it has been a must to continue to keep global and local economies moving, working from home has, and continues to be a significant challenge for many. In the UK & Europe, businesses and staff in many industries have physically been away from their offices since April 2020. Yes, technology has been superb in supporting this virtual environment, in many cases has seen new skills and competencies develop, has made people connect more perhaps than they normally would have, but at what cost ? Firms have largely outsourced their responsibilities for real estate management, employee safety at work requirements, IT support, energy costs, property wear and tear and staff mental and physical well-being. Who is compensating the property owners ? Granted, many firms have provided equipment, occasional "treats", but what about the impact on mental health and families ? Never before have families been forced to spend so much time together, or locked out of a kitchen, dining room, study or garden shed. We all say we want to spend more time with family, but that's when it's our choice, when we can set the amount of time. In the UK, home schooling has seen a massive impact on families overall. The upside is parenting has had to up it's game and spend quality and engaged time with children. Switching off Play-stations and X Boxes has become even more critical. Google meets/classroom has played a massive part in keeping the future leaders of business and economies educated and connected. Teachers have seen the pressure front on. None of them were trained in universities to deliver this type of learning under these type of pressures. Have they become the 4th emergency service ? Those children that can attend these lessons, have had different experiences. Learning has taken on wide ranging variation. Seeing inside your fellow classmates' and teachers' homes through the video has opened up imaginations. Children learning how to use the platforms has brought intrigue and humour that would not have come in the classroom - "Miss. How do I change the background on my screen ? Do you have a cat with you there ? Who does your decorating ?" This works for those that have parents that are or can be engaged. A large number don't or can't home school. Conflicts with their own jobs, or lack of equipment or interest, has seen a growing number of children left to Play-stations and X Boxes. Domestic violence and marital breakdowns in many countries has increased. As we start to see lockdowns being eased, will we see more flagrant abuses of safe social distancing ? What has this all done to investment and investors ? Well, whilst we have seen fast food franchises with enormous queues at drive throughs, increased on-line shopping, increased sales in cleaning and bio/disinfectant products, home improvement works growing, increased sales of "slouch-wear", other areas are in decline. Large retail outlets closing down. The travel and tourism industry sinking. The food and beverage industry drowning. Personal grooming standards falling. Let alone sales of business and formal clothing being impacted seriously by people not actually going out. Although, using the 6x6 rules, folk can now venture to pubs and eateries, going out, but in the UK, remaining “outside”. Will this see an upsurge in dressing up, or will this echo the sitting @ home sludge wear. To be seen.

What about the carbon foot-print of Covid-19 ? Fewer airplanes, but more white vans delivering the on-line shopping and food take away orders. Governments are trying to provide some stimulus, but it's not one size to fit all. We have seen the UK through central and local government provide funding for (large) firms to help retain staff, but it was a short-term offer. Some firms used the monies wisely, others kept it for the wrong reasons, and others were more magnanimous and gave it back to the Treasury. We are seeing economic data that indicates there will need to be increases in various countries' Government debt raising. Where will this lead investment on the institutional side ? This obviously depends on a country's ability to look more attractive in fighting Covid-19. On the retail side ? For those that can afford to, very domestic focused and probably short-term expectation horizons.

What about the return to offices ? Recent polls indicate that on average, more people expect to work from home 3-4 days per week. The minimum expect/wish to go back to their offices for a full week, and the second highest scores show people wishing to have a flexible approach to home/office working. That’s great if there is a choice. Some firms are open to this range of flexibility, but others are much more of the view that a return to the actual office is non-negotiable. Can you blame them ? From a commercial perspective, ground rent and cost of premises hasn’t changed, but Covid distancing rules will mean less space in the office for everyone to return, so flexibility is desired as a concept, as long as it is not mandatory perhaps. Creativity has taken on a new form, as the corridor/pantry/whiteboard free-speech as morphed into structured VC’s and programmatic monologue. The biggest challenge to firms is to regain the opaque trust that existed in a physical face-face environment versus the suspicion of “spy wear” and “click monitoring”. The BBC reported an interview with a young lady that shared that she had never felt so scrutinised, watched, pressurised, isolated from any leadership direction or encouragement, to the point that she feared every day but was trapped by the environment of not easily being able to quit the job and move to another. This is a story that repeats itself over and over across the world sadly. However, some thrive from isolation/limited physical interaction, and have brought innovation to us, in the form of new games, apps, disruption to commonly accepted norms, some of which benefit all of us, however, generally at the expense of the older generation that haven’t or can’t adopt the “smart” tools. Mobile banking centres have returned to fill the gap between reducing high street bank branches and more and more outsourcing of banking services to the customer via on-line or app. Neither completely satisfying the needs of the core of customers that have kept and keep, the high street banks liquid.

The new normal is still being defined and will continue to do so over the next while. Meanwhile, some encouraging innovation has been seen in the app development to monitor and track emotional impacts. In addition to Fitbit, Apple Watch etc, there are tools that can track when you are happy, depressed, OK generally, but these can be used to see when you are productive, revenue generating stars, best time to perform, when you should be hired, and when you should be let go. Always a “human in the loop” is what is stated, and never, never, is this data used to select or deselect people, but across all industries, the use of these data points will increase and have a use of positive discrimination based upon the data alone. Not the individual. The new normal, will possibly see individuals as digital elements of a digital picture. Maybe sooner than we think…… who is watching whom ?