Everyone’s sick of hearing it said, but it is a tough time at the moment. Yes, restrictions are easing, and it is wonderful to be able to go out and eat meals in restaurants again, or hug our relatives, but there are some big dilemmas going on in the business world, and we have decided now is the time to start talking about them!

In March 2020, everyone abandoned their offices to work from home for what we all thought would be a few weeks, while the new virus that was sweeping through the country was brought under control; we genuinely thought schools would be deep cleaned, office spaces would be sanitised and there would be a quick return of pasta to the supermarket shelves! The prospect of working from home with laptops at the kitchen table, or managing on smart phones, didn’t seem too awful as it was only for a couple of weeks and then we would be returning to the office to continue as normal. That obviously didn’t happen! Over a year later, when many of us have had to adjust to home-working and businesses have made huge changes their processes to accommodate the prohibition of face-to-face contact, we are told it is now safe for us to start returning to ‘normal’.

But what is normal these days!? Is it still the same as it was pre-Covid?

Our industry had to come up with some innovative ways to ensure we stayed compliant and working within the many laws we are governed by, and fast! But we did it – as did many other industries – we found new ways of working to keep everyone safe but enabling us to continue to work supporting local businesses and candidates. With digital Right to Work checks trialled and in place since the first lockdown, a sudden announcement that these would cease to be accepted as of 17th May 2021 threw the industry into a panic.

There is great importance placed on legal documentation and any good recruiter knows that Right to Work documents are essential, as is due diligence in seeing said documents to prove this. Following intense pressure by the REC and other bodies, this deadline for online RTW checking has been pushed back, but it has thrown a lot of questions into the air concerning how we administer these checks in person again; this will mean a return to a much slower turn around process, ultimately forcing us back into an office working situation. Given the conversations about hybrid working, or continuing to work from home if you are able, does this backwards change in RTW checking render the recruitment industry, technically, unable to work from home?

Many businesses in Gloucestershire are like us. SMEs with a relatively small team, who have managed to survive, and even thrive, in a period of lockdown home working. Has it been the WFH dream for everyone? No. Are there some people for whom home working is beneficial? Yes. Do the vast majority of employees want to find a new way of working that blends the two? It seems that way.

From speaking with candidates, when recruiting for roles recently, for some it is not the salary or benefits package, but the option for flexible working that is becoming the biggest deal breaker, especially those that have been wanting a more flexible approach to work for a long time. This lockdown period has enabled them to prove it can work and work well! On the total flip side, there are also lots of young single professionals who do not have a comfortable home-working space, or any other interaction and who definitely do want to return to an office!

So as a business-owner, how do you find a solution to keep your entire workforce happy, without having to splurge thousands (that you might not have at this current time) on yet another new setup?

Shared office space and co-working is becoming more and more popular. Mandy Sibley, Centre Manager at FigFlex Offices in Gloucester has approached this with some new solutions.

“There is no one size fits all. The world is changing and we need to change too. I meet with all prospective new Clients and discuss with them their plans for now and the future, to make sure I can help create a bespoke solution to their office needs. For us, it’s not about making a quick sale and tying clients into long deals that aren’t really suitable, but more about a long-term partnership, giving our clients the confidence in our services to flex up when they need to when the time is right for them. If that means talking through and changing their office solution to suit their business model we can do that too, as the long-term outcome will be much more successful for all of us.”

With their new offering of more flexible serviced office space, Mandy takes a consultative approach to office working and is enjoying the challenges of working with local businesses to help devise an individual solution to each business requirement.

There is a dilemma on every corner with the return to an office. For some business owners, there is adapting to the school of thought that office spaces that once were considered to be essential, are no longer. For some the size of the space that is now required to adhere to social distancing measures means larger space is now needed, which ultimately comes with a higher price tag.

The vast majority of businesses have taken a hard hit in the pocket during the pandemic, yet lots play a vital part in the grand scheme of Gloucestershire’s local economy, as consumers, renting office space and services. How will serviced offices and business parks fare if a large proportion of businesses fail to return?

Technology is also a key factor to consider. Some businesses have made the switch to a VOIP based telephony system, whilst others invested in mobiles. What happens to those contracts now if we all go back to office-based working? Furthermore, there’s the dilemma over PCs & other hardware. If your business deployed your office equipment to employees so they now have their desktop PCs at home, how do you mobilise them now to offer a blended office and home-working environment? Did you invest in technology to get through the lockdowns, meaning your staff are easily mobile? If not do you have a budget for investment into additional computer equipment and the necessary infrastructure that goes with this?

Of course, it is not just hardware but software to consider. Did you find yourself investing in new technology or apps or systems to ensure you could keep working effectively through the lockdowns? If you invested in hardware or software equipment at the start of lockdown, are you now on the treadmill of making sure it is all kept up to date to ensure you are keeping up with the competition? And do you need all of this if you are to go back into an office? We asked Neil Smith, from local firm Reform IT for his thoughts:

“There was an understandable panic last year when lockdown was imposed and with a shortage of laptops on the market pretty much any device that could be dusted off and pressed back into service was better than nothing!

As a semblance of normality begins to return now is a good time to take stock of IT assets and home working environments. Who is using what equipment? Is it patched with the latest updates? Does it have working and current anti-virus on it? Is it compliant and encrypted?

If staff are using their own personal tech to access company data and resources consider the risks involved. Although they might only be connecting to a VPN or perhaps just accessing their email with it, if it’s the same laptop the kids use to access the internet unsupervised every night, that’s a considerable risk for any employer to consider. Is their home WiFi and router secure? Are they using a password or biometric protected smartphone? Your BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy comes into play here if you have one. How you enforce that policy is also just as important. For example, if your BYOD policy says that ‘Any computer being used to access the company IT systems must have up to date anti-virus software installed’ how are you checking that is always true on a privately owned laptop?”

There are so many choices to make, and no single one can be right for every business. The one thing we are sure of here, is that we are standing strong with our fellow Gloucestershire businesses, and if we can all support one another, be it sharing information, utilising one another’s services, or just networking to promote one another, we will be doing it!

We’re still not sure what is totally right for us as a business either, and welcome discussion from other business owners and employees. We’ve stood on our soapbox, now please come and join us to discuss your views too, we are desperate to know what you think!