LONDON - An explosion in remote working owing to the coronavirus pandemic could see companies slash office space, saving them money but not necessarily improving productivity among staff, according to experts.
Businesses allowing staff to work from home on a permanent basis, even as lockdowns ease worldwide, calls into question the future of skyscrapers used by multinationals which are seen as symbols of modern capitalism.
Major financial districts, such as London's Canary Wharf and La Defense in Paris, remain extremely quiet, even as governments lift restrictions on social distancing and travel by public transport.
Jes Staley, chief executive of British bank Barclays, has said "the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past".
"We will find ways to operate with more distancing over a much longer period of time," he added.
French car giant PSA, which makes Peugeot and Citroen vehicles, now sees remote working as a benchmark for tens of thousands of its office-based staff.
Twitter has indicated that some of its employees could do their jobs from home on a permanent basis.
"The revolution is going to come with a mindset shift," said Cydney Roach, global chair of employee experience at US consultancy Edelman.
"Companies have been debating on the future of work for 10 years, but people were really not very keen to pull the trigger and commit to it fully," she told AFP, adding that the "pandemic has proven that the technology is supportive of this kind of remote working".
Roach said "flexibility is going to take on a bigger meaning", adding that bosses should listen to employees' views on the matter.
Already, around 95 percent of 107,000 staff at British advertiser WPP are working remotely.
Real estate developer Land Securities last week estimated that only 10 percent of its office space was being used.
"There will never be a back-to-normal," said Alex Ham, joint chief executive at brokers Numis.
"It would be a great shame if, having been through this virtual working that we were thrust into, we didn't make some permanent changes to the way we work."
A recent survey by real estate consultancy Cushman & Wakefield of 300 companies worldwide showed 89 percent of them believed remote working would continue beyond the pandemic.
In a recent blog, professors Clare Lyonette and Beate Baldauf pointed out the advantages of home working.
"The majority of research highlights positive organisational outcomes... including cost savings, better productivity, improved recruitment and retention and reduced absenteeism," said the academics from the University of Warwick in central England.
But they cautioned: "Employers should be aware of the potentially negative effects this may incur over the longer–term.
"For example, reduced well-being and loyalty to the organisation may lead to reduced productivity, which will serve to deplete any savings made from reduced office space and resources."
According to Roach, "real estate is one of the areas that cost businesses the most" but "just because of real estate exigencies in small spaces like Manhattan, skyscrapers will never go away".
Corporate giants may however be tempted to reduce the number of their buildings to slash costs following the economic shock caused by COVID-19.
According to VPN provider NordVPN, some remote employees are working longer hours than they would in an office, affecting their work-life balance while not necessarily making them more productive.
NordVPN said US employees were on average working three hours a day longer.
© Agence France-Presse