• International Workplace
  • 13 May 2020

Back to the office after lockdown – but do employees want to return?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that those who are unable to work from home should now be encouraged to go back to work, so it seems we are on the – albeit slow – road to the return to the office. But, have these last few weeks of working from home led to the realisation that we don’t need to be in the office to do our jobs and that, in fact, we’re more productive when away from distractions, at home? Is it the end of the road for the office?

O2 Business’ new report – entitled The Flexible Future of Work, conducted in partnership with ICM and YouGov – found that employees will be reluctant to give up their new way of working after lockdown. Nearly half the workforce think flexible working will increase, with a third (33%) of this group expecting to increase the amount they work from home by at least three days a week after lockdown, and 81% expecting to work at least one day a week from home.

The report also suggests that tech could be the solution for bridging geographic inequality in the UK – with current lockdown restrictions reaffirming many employees’ ability to work from anywhere.

Currently, two-thirds of employees (62%) live within 30 minutes of their workplace. However, according to ICM, if working from home was easier and more common, this figure would reduce by half (to 36%) and instead two-thirds (63%) of Brits would be willing to live up to an hour away from their workplace. This suggests that competition to attract and retain staff could intensify post-lockdown, as businesses compete with a wider range of employers from across the country.

While two in five employees currently live in a city, research from YouGov shows that if they had the ability to work more flexibly nearly half of city dwellers (41%) would move out to more rural locations.

Dr Heejung Chung, Reader in Sociology and Social Policy Director at the University of Kent, who is currently researching the impact of flexible working, commented:

“It will be difficult to go back to normal ways of working after lockdown, as we’ve now proven that most of us can work from home – despite many companies previously telling employees that it wouldn’t be possible.

“The UK has a huge challenge with the geographic distribution of wealth, and this exaggerates the problem of overpopulation in cities. If people could work from wherever they want to, without any fear of career penalty, this would create a huge opportunity for everyone. Even though the findings highlight that people will be willing to live up to one hour away from work in the future – that’s still constrained by what people feel they currently need to do. If we completely opened this up with consistent flexible working, and we had the right digital infrastructure in place, that time could be significantly increased.”

Adjusting to the new normal

Whilst once perceived as a bonus, flexible working is now considered the most important workplace benefit that, aside from salary, employees consider when taking a new role.

However, as our working lives continue to evolve as lockdown persists, employees admit to finding the lack of social interaction challenging. Of those surveyed by ICM, 30% admitted that working from home can be lonely, while 26% miss informal socialising with colleagues. But O2 Business believes that continued use of real-time collaboration tools and instant messaging services could be the solution – enabling both planned meetings and lighter-touch, daily check-ins to continue with ease.

Katy Liddell, Director Business Sales & Service at O2, said:

“Whilst it’s difficult to fully gauge what the long-term impact of COVID-19 will be, The Flexible Future of Work shows us how the demand for flexible working and the role of technology in our working life is accelerating during lockdown, and how this might shape the future of the workforce. What’s clear is the ever-critical role connectivity will continue to play in our working lives going forward, wherever we are working from.

“With more of us working flexibly than ever before, for most businesses, digital infrastructure has become more important than physical infrastructure. In the face of this, businesses must continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of their workforce to ensure they continue to attract and retain talent.”

To view headline findings from The Flexible Future of Work and to view the report in full, please contact