How the working world will change as we exit the pandemic twilight zone

September marked six months since a number of world changing news stories broke –  six months since The World Health Organization (WHO) announced Coronavirus as an official pandemic (11th September 2020) and six months since Boris Johnson enforced the national lockdown (23rd September 2020).

Throughout this month I’ve consistently been reminded of a quote from Vladimir Lenin – “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” It certainly feels apt considering the milestones which have recently passed!

The speed at which the world of work has changed due to the pandemic has been astronomical. From businesses introducing remote working arrangements to the government implementing the job retention scheme to stave off mass unemployment – the country has adapted speedily.

As we continue to work out how to live and work with the virus, it feels like we are in a sort of twilight zone – looking back at the past but trying to adapt for the future. It’s vital businesses and workers understand how the world of work will develop over the following five years and how they should best prepare for these changes.


Connecting communities 

Much has been said about the return to the office over the past month. With remote working normalised for many office roles, it has been difficult for businesses and the government to request that workers put themselves at risk and return to the office.

As a result, city centres are suffering from a lack of returning office workers, but employers must understand that the pandemic has led to a change in priorities. The ability to live and work in the same location and create a better work-life balance has been incredibly appealing to white-collar workers – particularly those who previously faced, long, arduous and expensive commutes to their workplace. The displacement of inner-city roles will continue over the following years as businesses listen to what their people want.

This increase in remote working opportunities has delivered positives for businesses and will continue to do so. For example, recruiting companies will have a much larger pool of potential candidates to choose from. By 2025, a business based in London could employ workers who come into the office just once a week. As such, they can live and work from pretty much anywhere in the UK or even internationally. This will help to redistribute highly skilled workers away from city centres to more rural locations, and will also help to redistribute wealth. Businesses will no longer need to offer sky-high wages to entice distant commuters with a 3-hour round trip per day, while workers will no longer have to spend half their wage on rent to live locally to inner-city offices.

By diminishing the power of our cities, we should see a revival of towns and smaller communities. Previously dormant, these towns are now desirable, with more workers seeking a quieter and more picturesque neighbourhood. Local shops in suburban London have seen sales increase above pre-pandemic levels, with East Ham seeing rises of sales in clothes shops by 10%. The following five years should see a continued displacement across the country, creating greater equality through remote working opportunities and allowing us to become more connected with our local communities.


Two-speed workforce 

The pandemic and subsequent increase in remote working has put into stark reality the two-speed workforce within the UK. Lockdown has revealed the jobs which help keep the country running – from the doctors in the ICU departments to the shop floor attendants who kept restocking loo rolls onto empty shelves.

The difference between those who could work from home and those who could not created a divide in society. As we continue to see a trend of working from home over the following five years, we must not fall into the trap of increasing inequalities between these two workforces. The government must continue to support all key workers and those who have to continue to commute to be able to work in the future.

The pandemic though could create the next generation of vocational workers. With the weekly round of applause heard across the country in support of key workers, younger generations will be inspired to consider roles that make a difference to our society, such as in social care or education. Having recently read John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s ‘The Wake-up Call’ I would agree that we should pay teachers more and select them more rigorously. Any increase in capable young people moving into these roles will be a positive. 

REED’s own data shows that white-collar roles are down 60% on January’s level, as businesses cut costs. The economic fallout will be difficult, particularly for entry level workers, but I’m reassured by the dynamism of the British workforce who want to upskill. We’ve seen a 74% year on year increase in workers signing up to online courses, with “COVID-19: Psychological Impact, Wellbeing and Mental Health” among one of our most popular courses in August. It’s great to see such a huge increase in people taking online courses to widen and deepen their skillsets and this will support their transition towards a new career.

The country has been hit by six months of uncertainty; however, we must look forward to ways workers and businesses can embrace change over the next five years. Although the news often feels full of doom and gloom, especially regarding reports on the job market and the economy, we must remain resilient and adaptable to change. The following five years will see us move out of the current twilight zone into a new world of working – hopefully into a positive period of stable growth and “a decade where nothing happens.”


James Reed

13th October 2020