John Harrison

‘This [Covid-19] changes everything’ is a phrase we have all heard said repeatedly over the last few months. The lockdown has had a varying effect on people, because people aren’t very easy to define, but probably the biggest effect has been that most of us learned that we don’t have to go to work, to work. Now, it is coming as a bit of a shock to say the least that actually, erm, we have to back to work shortly if we aren’t already. Get ready for the Great Return.

Which kind of companies are opening their doors first?

Businesses which demand the physical presence of staff because their interpersonal communication skills are vital are demanding that staff return now. Problems can be solved when people’s skills and intellects are pooled, in scheduled and unscheduled meetings. Real time communication; when you can unexpectedly hit on a new idea because of a chance conversation with somebody in a lift for example, are the essence of success, and so is real-time selling and representation. Moscow-based Favorit Motors, for example, needs hands-on sales staff on site, but their back office staff must also be on hand to clinch deals. Favorit’s staff are already back at work. The only difference, the company’s the firm’s President Vladimir Popov, told Kommersant in working conditions before and after self-isolation is that the company has spent money on air-purification and personal hygiene equipment.

Igor Shuvalov, the chairman of Vnesheconombank told RBK that he doesn’t consider that even half of his bank’s business can be carried out at home, and intends to return all staff to work in the bank’s offices on July 1st. “We have a team of people who think alike and who are specialists. We work in an open office environment; we have to see each other. I don’t know of anybody who doesn’t need to return from distance working. Our organisation needs all of its staff.” Most Sberbank employees never had the opportunity to try working from home at all, as the bank, like hospitals, was deemed to be a provider of an ‘essential service’ and faithfully served their clients throughout the quarantine period. It is difficult to imagine security systems in Russia, or anywhere for that matter, being good enough to facilitate bank clerks engaging in financial operations for clients working from home.

Companies which can do without the physical presence of employees to remain competitive, or which perhaps consider that if half the economy is shut down, there is no need to be competitive, have put off the ‘Great Return’ until the Autumn. The yearly summer slack off, as millions of Russians take off on their annual vacations, has also played into the hands of such employers.

QIWI whose headquarters are in Chertanovo, told RBK that it does not plan to end online working for most office staff until September. Only staff whose domestic situations prevent working at home will be allowed to start work on July 1st, but that is only about 10% of the office work force., Yandex and other Russian IT companies also seem prepared to postpone the return to normal office working until the Autumn. As pioneers in Russian IT, they are ideally equipped to make the best use of distance-working technology, and much of their presence in the market is online anyway.

Many, in fact the majority of Russian and foreign companies operating in Russia do not need to return to ‘normal’ immediately but at the same time cannot function on a skeleton office staff alone. They will be gradually filling their offices again during July and August.

Raiffeisen bank reported to Kommersant that about 13% of all office staff in Russia will not be needed to occupy desks in offices again; they will continue working from home. This alone indicates a vast transformation of working practices, and we shall no doubt see further development of software such as zoom which will make working at home more attractive. Raiffeisen’s 13% could actually increase over time. Adrian Salter from MEP Engineering told RK: “Employers will have been monitoring the efficiency of their employees working from home during the past few weeks. Some companies, for example in the IT sector, have approximately the same efficiency and therefore continue to ask their staff to work from home. The next step can be that they will reduce the size of the office space they currently rent to make a big saving and move their business into greater profitability.”

Do Russians want to return to the office?

According to information supplied to Kommersant by Kelly Services, two thirds of office staff want to return to work. Kelly Services’ figures should perhaps not be taken as gospel truth, as the company provides office staff. For many Russians, the office is not just a place to work but a social focus, and a source of motivation. Staff at Kelly Services itself have not rushed back to pick up phones yet. When they do, they will be working in shifts of two-three days a week, in special workspaces using shared computers.

For some people the lock down has been a wonderful time. “I have never been able to balance my life before, between work and play. Now thanks to the internet and coronavirus this is now all possible”, said a very happy Katya, who has been working in real estate for the past 20 years. She is reluctant to go back to daily commutes plus an 8-9 hour office day. But for others, stuck in a small flat with children, without access to a dacha, with sick grandparents or just with themselves, lockdown has been hell on earth. The record number of divorces going through now gives evidence of this. Youngish people in general who have jobs with prospects, possibly with young children and enjoy socialising with their friends at work seem keen to return. People who are older have been able to economise on transport,  and have enjoyed a bit more time for themselves, although that isn’t always the way it has worked out, as many have found themselves given more work online to do than they had in their offices.

For most employers the ‘Great Return’ is necessary

For employers, practically speaking, the ‘Great Return’, whether now or in the Autumn, is overdue. It is more difficult for managers to evaluate performance, and most important, to motivate staff online. Perhaps the biggest challenge is employing new people. ‘Locked-down’ employers and employees do know each other from the ‘old days’ when they shared an office, a canteen, celebrated birthdays and socialised together. But the question of how to recruit, motivate, and manage new members of staff online, has yet to be addressed. From the employers’ point of view the question of trust is paramount. Real Estate businesses and consultants, as well as banks and financial institutions are also eager to see people back at work, for structural financial reasons. Offices have never been only about providing space for staff, just as cars have never been only about transportation or houses for living in. They are also closely connected with prestige, investment value, as well as enforcing hierarchical structures within companies. Covid-19 is not going to change this, at least not this year.

Will office life change?

There is no doubt that the physical aspects of offices will have to change. Companies will have to spend some money on adapting premises according to new norms stipulated by ‘Rospotrebnadzor’. Canteens must be organised so that social distancing can be observed, more space between desks must be provided, additional personal hygiene facilities must be provided, employee’s temperatures should be taken regularly and so on. This will also affect the spirit of the office, if such ethereal qualities can be prescribed to buildings. It would seem that office life will not be as sociable as it was before, and it will probably be some time before we see the return of the sacred office party and corporate event. The fact that infection rates in Russia are still stubbornly high means that most staff will now be thinking about their own safety as well as corporate solidarity.

As far as the actual work that office employees carry out, Adrian Salter, Founder and President of MEP Engineering told RK: “This situation has opened the eyes of many companies that some, if not many employees, can fulfil their job responsibilities from home. It will help to speed up the digitalisation of many businesses.”

Most companies will have to spend a considerable amount of capital updating their offices, which will probably lead to a boom in ‘safe’ office fitouts and design. The costs involved mean that many companies will postpone full re-staffing until the Autumn, if they can. Some companies are employing interesting ways of limiting the number of people using lifts at any one time. The weight limits in lifts in some business centres and office blocks have been reduced.

Tenants occupying newly fitted out offices will very likely demand that the fitout of their new offices be not only flexible, but that air purification systems are more effective. Adrian Slater said: “Some of our Clients have already asked our company to make a technical Due Diligence of their buildings Ventilation and Air Conditioning systems to look for ways to improve the hygiene factor. I believe that during the next 6-12 months many building owners will understand they should also check the standard of their buildings hygiene to satisfy their tenants that it is as clean as practically possible to minimise the sicknesses that are often spread in offices spaces.” The minimum number of sq. meters allocated to each office worker will be increased. This will very likely lead to a new boom in ‘pandemic’ architecture and fitout design, and could lead to heightened interest in progressive, even green office architecture because such design solutions can lead to an improvement in the well-being of office employees. Adrian Salter commented: “The design of future office buildings must now consider that many Tenants might need smaller, but more flexible, office space to allow their business to morph from one format to another, depending on how many of their employees are working from home at any particular moment. This will present a new and interesting challenge for the architects and engineers and it will allow us to offer new solutions for progressive businesses who want to more efficiently utilise the space they rent.”

Office life will of course change for some employees. They will not return to their offices, nor will they work at home. As we all stand on the brink of possibly the greatest recession since WWII, it is inevitable that some companies will close and sack their staff. So far, however, partly thanks to government subsidies, such an extreme turn of events has not yet taken place on a large scale.

Covid-19 will not change everything. Offices themselves will not follow the dinosaurs to extinction, but they will have to adapt to survive. Most of us will indeed return to the office and will probably soon forget all about home working. That 13% of staff who will be employed at home could, over the years, act as a catalyst for change in the whole concept of working.

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