Coronavirus: Some NI employers getting staff back to the office

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Belfast’s city streets were largely deserted at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown

Some major employers in Northern Ireland are beginning to get office-based staff back into the workplace.

Stormont’s advice remains that people should continue to work from home when they can.

PwC, which has one of the largest offices in Belfast with space for over 1,000, now has just under 100 staff back in.

Kevin MacAllister, the consultancy’s regional lead, says they are being guided by staff demand.

“We have a number of people who actually find it quite challenging to work from home and have requested we provide them with a safe office environment.

“There’s absolutely no compulsion on anyone to be present in the office, but we have the facility with safeguards in place.”

Mr MacAllister is back in his office after three months working from home.

‘Bookending the day’

“I do like having the idea of the office putting a bookend on the day, between home life and work life,” he says.

The firm is also pressing ahead with a major new office building at the Merchant Square development in the city centre.

Novosco, an IT-firm based in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, also has some people back on site.

Its offices were completely off limits to staff during the lockdown.

It quickly adapted to remote working, even hiring and training new staff.

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Stormont’s advice remains that people should continue to work from home when they can

But a survey conducted in June suggested that about a third of employees wanted the option to come into the office.

The firm now expects to be using a hybrid arrangement of home and office working for the foreseeable future.

“I think the office will always have a place,’ says Susan Hill, the firm’s head of talent management, “but that hybrid approach will be the most effective.”

She points to collaboration and creativity as activities which are much more effective in person rather than through video calls.

‘More of a trickle than a surge’

This return to the office is more of a trickle than a surge.

Ulster Bank, which has a large office in central Belfast, has told back office staff they can continue to work from home until the new year.

Carson McDowell, one of Belfast’s largest legal firms, says that when it reopens the office it initially expects no more than 20% of staff to be back on site at any one time.

That sort of number is likely to be repeated across many firms as long as social distancing remains.

This is not necessarily a problem for the workers and businesses which have adapted to much less office-based work.

But for the cafes, delis, pubs and newsagents of the city centre which rely on trade from office workers these are increasingly worrying times.

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