Less than half of small business owners (46%) anticipate their staff will be working from an office or official workplace by the end of the year – with 40% of small businesses set to continue with home and hybrid working arrangements, according to new research by Hitachi Capital Business Finance.
With the Government confirming this week that it will scrap its work from home advice on 21 June, the new research questions whether there will an exodus back to the office, with the majority of small businesses continuing with alternative working arrangements – and many believing office working is far from being safe. The Hitachi Capital data points towards a new era of diversified working habits for the small business community which, across regions and UK sectors, will become the new normal.
Looking at the position today – one month before restrictions end – only one in three small businesses that are open for business currently have staff working from an office or official workplace (36%). The majority of small businesses are continuing with home and hybrid working (54%) – with one in 10 enterprises conducting theirs outdoors (10%).
The nationally representative poll of 1,032 small business owners also explored how plans may change over the next six months. Here, the proportion of small businesses advising staff to work from home will fall to 16% – but home working will continue and will remain strong in a number of key sectors and regions. The percentage adopting hybrid working arrangements will continue unchanged into the post-lockdown era (24%). Whilst there will be an increase in the percentage of small businesses returning to the office or official workplace, by the end of the year it will still account for less than half of small businesses (46%). Going into 2022, there will still be fewer small businesses working from their official premises than the number of enterprises that choose to work in a different way.
Where staff will work: Small business owner responses over time
Beyond the practical issues of some small businesses having adjusted to new ways of working during lockdown – and many employees enjoying a better work-life balance – safety issues also factored in business owner decision making. When asked which work environments they considered to be safe in terms of COVID controls, home working 48% and hybrid working (38%) were seen to be safer than an office/workplace environment (32%). Significantly, only 60% of those that were already back in an office environment thought it was safe in terms of COVID controls – compared to 77% of home workers that thought home working was safe and 72% of hybrid workers that thought their way of working was safe.
The lockdown experiences that have forced many small businesses to adapt will result in far greater diversification going forward in how small businesses choose to operate. Enterprises in Wales, the West Midlands and North East were most likely to predict staff returning to workplace by the end of the year – although the figure for London was amongst the lowest [see notes to editor].
By the end of the year, home working will remain popular for more than one in four small businesses in the East (29%), London (25%) and the North East (24%) – whereas business leaders in the North West (24%) and East Midlands (24%) were those most likely to predict hybrid working will be the norm going into 2022.
By sector, small business owners in hospitality (63%) and manufacturing (57%) were most likely to predict a return to the work place by the end of the year – sectors where businesses have suffered greatly from Covid restrictions and where many have had to close their doors. Small businesses in technology and science were most likely to see homeworking continue whilst the media and real estate sectors were most likely to see hybrid working as the future.
Joanna Morris Head of Insight at Hitachi Capital Business Finance commented: “Our preliminary findings from new research make clear there will no single reaction, no one correct response, to restrictions falling away – because there is no average small business. Some small businesses want – and need – to reopen their premises, others have learned how to use technology to adapt to home working and it has worked well for them. Others are looking a new hybrid models that blend staff being together yet also having time to work from home – and of course some small businesses work outdoors. Never has there been such diversification within the small business community and as enterprises begin to operate in a myriad of different ways, our job is to better understand the opportunities and challenges of each, so we can tailor the way we support them, treat people as individuals and help small businesses to achieve their true potential.”