As lockdown restrictions ease, more and more people are returning to work. But for the millions of Brits still at home or furloughed, the future of work remains a mystery.
To lift the lid on what it might be like when you go back, we spoke to six people in different industries who’ve already done it. From estate agents to dentists, teachers and store managers, here’s what work looks like to them, post-lockdown.
‘Simple things require careful thinking and planning in advance’
Primary school teacher
Alan Jones, 52, is a primary school teacher in Bedford. He usually teaches Year 5 pupils, but has been on a rota teaching the children of key workers Years 3-6 since lockdown began. The school reopened to Year 1 and Year 6 on June 1. He’s still teaching a mix of ages, and says not knowing which children you will teach – or how many – on a daily basis is a challenge.
“I’ve been apprehensive in having to continue teaching... but we’ve done everything physically possible as a senior management team to protect children, families and staff,” he says.
The school reopened with a “social bubbles” system, to keep children in Year 1 and 6 away from key workers’ children across the rest of the school.
Because the school was built in 1977, they can physically only have 10 children safely in a class while maintaining a two-metre social distance. They’ve also implemented staggered start times and break times, but Jones says “social distancing is impossible for children seven and under”.
“Having to teach the children at arms’ length is horrible, as is constantly reminding them of their personal hygiene and proximity to others,” he adds.
Moving around the school safely is an hourly challenge. “It’s almost a military procedure planned to go to the photocopier,” says Jones. “Simple things such as sending them to the toilet or dealing with first aid issues require careful thinking and planning in advance.”
And break times are simply a break from the classroom, but not particularly fun for anyone, he says: “Children can’t play as they once would, contact games are impractical and problematic.”
Jones points out that these difficulties are persistent even though the school has a small percentage of its pupils in. “It’s impractical to expect schools to return to normal in September,” he adds. “Even if the social distancing rule was reduced, you would only get a maximum of 15 pupils in a class in our school. We don’t have enough space nor teaching capacity to have all pupils back.”
‘I’m having to filter all of my decisions through a new system’
Katie Davis, 34, works as a dentist in Somerset, splitting her time between private and NHS patients. During lockdown she’s been unable to attend the surgery, so has been working on her side hustle Habox – selling dental subscription boxes for kids. Her first day back at the surgery was June 11.
“I was really nervous before I got there, but after a few patients I settled in and thought: ‘Good, I still know how to do my job,’” she says.
Covid-19 safety precautions mean the treatments dentists can offer are still limited. Different treatments require different levels of PPE, Davis explains, and there’s still a shortage in dentistry.
“In a nutshell, if you’re creating an aerosol you have to have the high level of PPE that’s needed in hospitals to treat patients with Covid,” she says. “We don’t have that, so I can’t drill teeth, I can’t spray water or air on teeth, I can’t make a patient cough, and they can’t rinse their mouth out anymore.”
As a result of the restrictions, Davis is limited to taking teeth out, giving injections and putting temporary fillings in. For each patient, she has to think about what will provide the best outcome for them, if the treatment she would usually perform isn’t an option.
“At first I was second-guessing everything I was doing. I felt this nervous energy,” she says. “I know how to do my job and I’m really good at it, but now I’m having to filter all my decisions through a new system, which is so expansive and based on best-guess most of the time.”
There are a high number of elderly patients in her area and Davis says many can’t hear what she’s saying because her face is covered with a mask and visor. She’s having to write a lot down, so appointments are taking longer than usual.
Getting home from work also takes more time. Davis shares a car with her partner, who has asthma, so she doesn’t want to risk using it after work – or bringing the virus home. Instead, her partner drops her to work in the morning, then Davis changes out of her uniform at the surgery, puts it into a pillow case and gets the bus home.
She goes through the back door to the house into the kitchen and throws the pillow case straight into the washing machine, along with the clothes she’s just commuted in. She wipes down everything she’s touched and jumps straight into the shower.
“The journey has had to be modified just to protect my family,” she says. “Being starkers in the kitchen is probably the most stressful part!”
‘Even the time I arrive to work has changed’
Bharat Dhimen, 38, is the store manager at Homebase in Haringey. Every aspect of his working day has changed due to the pandemic, he says, from the way he briefs his team to how he spends his lunch break.
“Even the time I arrive to work has changed,” he says. “We stagger shifts more than we used to, to ensure we’ve got enough people in for two hours before opening and two hours after closing, where we replenish stock and clean the entire store. Previously, we’d replenish stock throughout the day but that’s not possible with social distancing now.”
Another change is that his office has become a team space, where anyone can go to take five minutes to themselves if they need a break, or to eat their lunch.
“Our canteen, which used to comfortably fit six or seven of us, is now only safe for three team members to take a break while remaining socially distanced,” he explains. “We’ve had to make sure to stagger breaks throughout the day, so there’s no risk of it ever being overcrowded in there.”
When Homebase began a phased reopening of stores, many of the staff’s roles had to change, so it’s Dhimen’s job to help the team adjust.
“Instead of serving customers at the checkouts, we’re reminding them to follow the arrows laid out in store and that we’re card-only when making a payment,” he says. “There’s a much greater onus on them to serve themselves where possible – especially at the checkouts.”
Staff have also been redeployed to manage the queues and clean surface – and Dhimen says the hard work is paying off. “We’re seeing customers coming back to us safe in the knowledge they’ll enjoy a safe shopping experience – and that’s something I know we’re all really proud of,” he says.
‘I hadn’t anticipated how alien it would feel’
Claire Reynolds, 37, is and estate agent for Savills, who splits her working day between client sales and overseeing the operations of seven of the company’s London offices. She returned to work on May 18.
“I was apprehensive as it’s a very people-facing role, bearing in mind that with Covid-19, the biggest danger to us is other people,” she says. “But it’s been really enjoyable being back.”
The biggest difference to Reynolds’ job has been to house viewings. Half of the sales in Mayfair – where she works – are to international buyers, who can’t visit in person due to travel restrictions. Instead, she’s conducting virtual viewings.
“Yesterday, I was showing a husband and wife based in the Middle East around a house in Mayfair. I had them on a Zoom video call, starting off coming through the front door and walking them through the house,” she explains.
“I had the wife asking me to open the cupboards so she could see all the draw space and how it was laid out. You can still hone in on the real detail of the property, but it’s a very different way of operating.”
Now lockdown restrictions have eased, Reynolds can do in-person viewings with UK buyers with some adaptations. If it’s not a new build, she’ll ask the buyers to leave if they can, or stay in one room with windows and doors open. Prospective buyers maintain social distancing throughout the visit, so Reynolds asks them to use lifts ahead of her and meet her on the correct floor.
She also wears a face mask and gloves for every appointment. “You feel like you’re turning up to clean up a crime scene rather than build a lovely, smiley rapport with someone,” she says. “I hadn’t anticipated how alien it would feel.”
On the plus side, her new working day has “forced her to be healthier” as she’s cycling to work rather than getting the Tube and is bringing lunch in, rather than buying something on-the-go.
“The world is just quieter at the moment,” she says. “I do love the hustle and bustle of London, but there is a more relaxed pace. I wouldn’t want London to lose its vibrancy permanently, but in this adjustment period, it’s not a bad thing.”
‘The lack of face-to-face interaction with colleagues is demotivating’
Sajan Devshi, 35, based in Leicester, is a digital marketing specialist at the charity Learndojo, which provides free resources to make education accessible to all. Devshi has gone back to the charity’s central hub – but it isn’t running any classes or allowing students in, so the corridors are deserted.
“We used to have countless students coming and going for their classes, making noise, talking, laughing,” he says. “We could constantly hear teachers running classes from their respective rooms, but that’s completely gone now.
“The only noise I can hear is the clock ticking on the wall loudly as I struggle to concentrate due to its noise, while working away on my laptop. Everything echoes in the building, something I would never have noticed before.”
There’s only one other person working in the building. Devshi describes the lack of face-to-face interaction with colleagues as “demotivating”.
“Humans are social creatures and being alone kills all your drive, motivation and focus,” he says. “I keep asking myself if things will ever go back to how they use to be. I didn’t realise I took the company of others for granted.”
Devshi says working in the building provides a change of scenery from home and he’s able to get more work done without his children around. Another added bonus is his commute has been cut by more than half.
“We’re located next to a school, so what used to be a busy drive packed full of delays and traffic now sees me drive through what feels like a ghost town,” he says.
‘I’m the only one in most days’
Davide Machado is the founder of the taxi share company SplitCab, so the core concept of the company – allowing Londoners to share a ride – is currently not possible. Instead, the business has had to focus on providing private cars.
Most of the staff are working from home or furloughed, so Machado has used the quieter period to work on planning for the future. “Work is pretty lonely at the moment,” he says. “I’m the only one in most days, but we have more team members starting to come back next week.”
The company has three offices, so Machado is preparing for the return of the workforce, including getting rid of hot-desking.
“Most of the day-to-day operations have been taken up by the management team to cover the work normally carried out by the furloughed team members,” he says. “I live jogging distance from our Heathrow office so getting to and from work was minimal in terms of risk to myself and others.”
Socially distanced team meetings have already proved a challenge – Machado notes you have to speak abnormally loudly with everyone spaced so far apart.
“Team lunch breaks won’t be possible until further down the line once firm advice on this has been issued by the powers that be,” he adds.
The experience of using the company’s cabs will be different, too, as all drivers and riders will have to wear masks, while handles and hard surfaces are being sanitised before and after each ride.
“It’s been challenging and we have had to furlough a lot of staff and stand down a significant number of drivers,” says Machado. “But we’re seeing signs of recovery and are positive about the future.”
Working It Out is a series exploring the future of work and wellbeing after coronavirus – from office life to working from home.