• Rethinking the workplace in the new reality
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Rethinking the workplace in the new reality

17 September 2020

The world of work has changed exponentially since we entered lockdown in March. Attitudes towards commuting, communication, workspaces and working hours have been flipped on their heads – the question is whether these changes are permanent, part of a ‘new reality’, or if we will slowly resume old ways of working when the virus finally eases.

Our monthly Rethinking the Economy survey of 500 mid-sized businesses suggests that the changes are here to stay in the North West. Businesses have taken decisive action to ensure they continue to operate but in a remote way. The latest data shows that only 23% of businesses in the region have seen their workforce return to the office, with more than 70% of workplaces remaining closed, or only open for those who really need it. In relation to working patterns, 60% of businesses said they already had very flexible working in place and will continue to implement these arrangements. 

This flexibility is mirrored in commuting patterns. The Centre for Cities High Streets Recovery Tracker shows that footfall plummeted following the lockdown announcement, decreasing by 89% in Manchester alone. Despite a 42% recovery in the city, it’s evident that the world of work has evolved and will continue to.

Research by the Financial Times corroborates what we are seeing in the North West. According to the publication, business leaders are proposing significant changes to working patterns that will have far-reaching consequences for the urban economy. Companies are preparing plans for flexible use of offices for meetings and socialising, rather than traditional nine to five desk-bound work.

Various scenarios have been suggested about what the world of work will look like in the event of a COVID-19 vaccine, or a persistent virus, but the likely outcome is a permanent blend of home and office working.

The agility of North West businesses to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic is reflected in strong levels of confidence in their own business success and their view of talent. In comparison to a national average of 68%, our monthly poll has revealed that an overwhelming 87% of businesses in the region feel their workforce has the skill sets required to help drive the business forward post COVID-19. Understandably, the headlines have been dominated by job losses in recent weeks, but it’s encouraging to see so many businesses in the region looking ahead towards succession planning to build a workforce of the future.

The topic of skills and talent was on the agenda in the North West long before the arrival of a global pandemic. The Northern Powerhouse Partnership report, Educating the North, describes the issue as the ‘greatest challenge’ facing the region, with poor skills and inadequate training ranking highly amongst businesses it consults with. The report sets out 14 recommendations to improve schools and training in the North of England. From radical new steps in devolving adult education funding to the new Metro Mayors, to a commitment from businesses here to help mentor and provide career support to 900,000 Northern schoolchildren, it forms a detailed plan to address decades of underperformance in education in the North of England.

COVID-19 has most certainly shone a light on the workplace and skills like never before. What is very clear is that there is a consensus from business leaders, local and central government, to address such issues as skills and education. This will undoubtedly be fast-tracked in light of the global pandemic.

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