Principality Building Society boss says home working ‘here to stay’

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Offices like this might become a thing of the past after Covid-19

The new boss of Wales’ largest building society has said home working has been so successful many staff will not return to the office.

Principality Building Society chief executive Julie-Ann Haines said staff numbers at the Cardiff headquarters might never return to pre-Covid levels.

She said there had been a shift in attitudes among its 800 staff.

Other large employers are not expecting to return to previous staffing levels until at least 2021, if at all.

How will we adapt?

The major drop-off in the number of commuters has prompted Cardiff Council to look into how the future direction of the city needs to change in response.

Latest footfall figures for Cardiff show they are down 54% so far this year compared to 2019.

Virtually all of the Principality’s staff at its headquarters have been working from home since the start of the pandemic.

Julie-Ann Haines said: “I do not think we will go back to a position where we have all of our workforce in here Monday to Friday in the way that we did prior to lockdown.”

She added that colleagues had already been asking for more opportunities to work flexibly and the levels of home working had accelerated this.

“There has been a fundamental shift in expectations. Colleagues have demonstrated they can be as productive, and in some cases more productive, working from home than they were in the office,” she said.

“They are enjoying the fact that they are not commuting. I have a colleague who works in Carmarthen, and they are enjoying the fact they have two and a half hours to do what they wish.”

Ms Haines said the issue of maintaining home working was relevant to all city centre companies, not just the Principality.

Transport for Wales is also dealing with a new outlook, now carrying about 30% of its usual number of passengers.

At the peak of the pandemic, passenger revenue was down 95%, a figure that has picked up thanks to increases in leisure travellers but commuting numbers are still down.

Leyton Powell, from Transport for Wales, said he believes rail passengers will return to the network even if working patterns change with less of an intense rush twice a day on the old 9 to 5 model.

He said: “You can see the roads getting busier. The investment that Transport for Wales is going to be making over the next couple of years on a high quality service will encourage people back and it will make more sense for them to be travelling with us.”

Analysis: How many workers are commuting again?

To get a sense of how much the traditional commuter models have changed in recent months I jumped on the 08:32 from Pontypridd to Cardiff Central, a service that prior to lockdown would have been packed with office, shop and call centre workers.

Instead, I was one of just two people in a carriage that would have carried about 100 passengers with standing room.

That morning, because of social distancing and plummeting demand, the entire train was carrying about a tenth of the people it would have normally.

All of this poses serious questions for Transport for Wales, which used to find that overcrowding on commuter routes was its number one problem. That has now switched to the point where its biggest challenge now is generating business.

But there are questions for many other organisations as well, at a time when any large scale return to offices seems more remote than ever with the recent spike in coronavirus cases and local lockdowns.

Company bosses have to deal with the fact that while many people enjoy not having to commute and have the space to work from home, many other staff members live in cramped conditions which are not suitable to be turned into offices.

And at a wider level, there are questions on economic development.

In recent years, the centre of Cardiff has been the engine room for jobs growth in south Wales. If that is to change fundamentally then there needs to be change of plan from both Cardiff Council and the Welsh Government.

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