Office ‘team spirit’ alive and kicking from home - David Alexander comment

Unlike the situation in England and Wales, retailers on the high streets of Scotland have been permitted to reopen for trading before those in enclosed shopping centres.
We will probably need less business space than we did before, says Alexander. Picture: Fizkes/Getty Images/iStockphoto.We will probably need less business space than we did before, says Alexander. Picture: Fizkes/Getty Images/iStockphoto.
We will probably need less business space than we did before, says Alexander. Picture: Fizkes/Getty Images/iStockphoto.

This should give retailers with street access a head start. Even when the malls do open, nervous customers might prefer to stick with the high street given that skipping between shops means being out in the open air where, according to virologists, the risk of catching Covid-19 is much reduced.

Undoubtedly too, all conventional retailers are likely to experience a V-shaped upsurge in spending as “a day out at the shops” takes on a new appeal after more than three months of lockdown.

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Whether this will last is another matter. There’s a large consensus that even more people than previously will have become so used to online shopping that after a few days of “novelty” trips to the high street or purpose-built malls, they will soon resume their tendencies to use the internet for most non-food purchases.

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However, others hope the lockdown experience will make people more appreciative of conventional retail, not just for shopping but also how it incentivises people to get out of the house and start mixing with others again.

My gut feeling is that the first of the above outcomes is more likely than the second – but who knows? The pandemic is leading to changes in consumer habits we would have not believed possible just a few months ago – for example a huge surge in UK “staycation” holidays during July and August, even if travel to and from certain foreign sunspots is allowed by that time.

Pleasant surprise

I am, however, on firmer ground when it comes to business space, based on experience as an office occupier during the lockdown months. It has been a pleasant surprise to discover that not only has the internet and other technology helped us to continue operating efficiently as a company, it has actually improved our performance in some quarters.

You might think being out of physical contact with “the boss” would make some members of staff less efficient. In reality many are actually doing better than before because when they begin a day’s work, they won’t already have expended some of their energy getting to the office.

Having staff out of sight does not mean they are “out of mind”. Every one of them must continue to carry out the same tasks as before, albeit in a different manner, made possible largely thanks to online facilities such as Zoom. Managers, of course, still need to ensure key performance indicators are monitored.

Therefore anyone abusing home-working – e.g. sunbathing in the garden at the most critical business time of the day – will soon be found out. “But what about office camaraderie?” someone asked me the other day. “Don’t staff working from home soon lose their team spirit once they start operating remotely?”

Initially, I too had concerns this might happen but these turned out to be groundless. Every dedicated member of staff appears to be no less dedicated to the job, and their respective team, than they were before.

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Anyway, the camaraderie often associated with the office can be overrated, especially if staff use the “water cooler” as a forum for discussion about last night’s football rather than the day job. There are, of course, employees who actually prefer the office and for whom home-working – e.g. a household with very young children or if “home” is a cramped flat – is not a permanent solution.

I can see a situation developing where some staff will either work from home or from the office full-time while others take the hybrid route of part-office/part-home working. The bottom line is, however, that we will probably need less business space than we did before March this year, something likely to be repeated in offices across the country.

On a ratio of cost-to-income, this will probably make many firms more efficient – but unfortunately it will have the opposite effect on commercial landlords and those pension funds invested in them.

David Alexander is MD of DJ Alexander

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