Flexible working will be norm after lockdown, say Barclays and WPP bosses

The chief executives of Barclays and WPP are predicting an end to crowded city centre offices and rush hours as flexible working becomes the new normal to keep the workforce healthy amid the Covid-19 crisis.

Jes Staley, the chief executive of Barclays, said the bank would look at a more de-centralised approach to staff working, including the prospect of local branches becoming satellite offices for more employees.

“I think the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past, and we will find ways to operate with more distancing over a much longer period of time,” he said.

“You’re going to find we use much more significantly our branches as alternative sites for investment bankers and call centre workers and people in the corporate bank,” he explained.

The view is echoed by Mark Read, the chief executive of WPP, the world’s biggest employer in the marketing and advertising sector with 106,000 staff. He said employees returning to work would be in offices at “substantially lower capacity with enhanced safety measures”.

WPP was one of the first UK-headquartered businesses to be exposed to the realities of work during the coronavirus, with its 5,000 staff in China the first to move to working from home. Read says that in China, where the lockdown has been lifted, on any given day about 10% of staff who were previously coming to the office are now working from home.

“The safety of our staff is our number one priority,” said Read. “There is the issue of safety in getting to work, crowding on public transport, as well as working from home. At WPP we are fortunate that we can work from home, it has been seamless really. I think through the other side of this [office] capacity will be somewhat lower. It will be important to maintain social distancing in offices.”

Barclays plans to first reopen its Hong Kong site, followed by offices in Singapore and Tokyo, while Europe is further down the list. Staley said there were practical issues to consider when figuring out how many people would be allowed in an office on any given day. For example, physical distancing measures may mean only two people can use a lift at any one time.

“It’s that sort of calculation that will determine how you roll this out and it’s going to happen over a pretty long period of time. This is not going to be a light switch,” he said.

However, he said it was “absolutely remarkable” that Barclays, a bank with £1.4bn on its balance sheet, was functioning while the vast majority of its approximately 80,000 staff were working from home.

“It’s an extraordinary thing that technology has allowed us to keep this bank so functional, given the fact that 70,000 people are doing it from their kitchens,” Staley said.

Read said that for WPP, the return to work would be in stages to be corporately responsible about issues such as commuting and crowding, with measures such as having only a fifth of staff heading to an office in the first weeks post-lockdown.

“The number one question I get in the town hall sessions I have [with staff around the world] is will there be more flexible working after [coronavirus],” he says.

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