Is Harrogate office life gone forever is the question as local employers reveal mixed picture

As the Government makes a new push to get people back into the office partly to boost the economy, the Harrogate Advertiser can reveal the campaign still has some way to go in the Harrogate district.

Friday, 4th September 2020, 2:48 pm
Updated Friday, 4th September 2020, 2:52 pm
Andrew Gray and his Truth Legal team are one of the firms back in a Harrogate office. Pictured from left are Verity Mitchell, Madaline Boubrean, Mirek Ksiezarek, Andrew Gray, Lucy Culpin and Karen Gillat. Picture Gerard Binks

Life may be returning to normal in many ways - even in schools.

But, when it comes to offices, the Harrogate district in many ways mirrors the rest of the country.

A recent national report by academics at Cardiff University and the University of Southampton found that nine out of 10 people still wanted to work from home.

Figures may not be available for the Harrogate district but local employers say a significant proportion of office staff may never return to offices on a full time basis, even though town centre business is partly dependent on it.

Harrogate Business Improvement District (BID) interim manager Simon Kent said: “People coming back to work in offices within the town centre will be one of the key drivers in reinvigorating the local economy.

"But many businesses have proved working from home is possible and for a number this will continue as the norm, and 70 per cent might well be an accurate figure.”

From the large to the small, public and private organisations have been forced to change working practices with new safety regimes this year because of the need for social distancing - for both employees in the field and traditional office-based staff.

Two of the biggest local employers in the Harrogate district, North Yorkshire County Council and Harrogate Borough Council have both taken strenuous steps to meet the new reality with safety a priority at all times.

In the case of the county council, even though the majority of its 7,150 staff are front line workers and not office based, it currently has 2,000 staff designated as working from home.

Harrogate Borough Council, approximately 60% of whose staff were office-based pre-Covid, said some of its staff were returning but it was now considering making the new mix-and-match system permanent.

A council spokesperson said: “Staff are required to book a desk via an online system so that we can manage numbers day to day.

“Some staff are working back in the office and other staff are able to return to the office should they wish to do so but their health and safety comes first.

“We will be looking at proposals for how the council may look in the future.

"For example, reflecting that more staff may want to work from home or whether some flexible arrangements could be adopted permanently.”

Public transport providers in Harrogate - LNER, Northern and Harrogate Bus Company and Connexions - have introduced a range of measures to welcome back customers.

Passenger numbers are on the way back up but are still nowhere near pre-lockdown.

Some are warning of a dire impact on town centres.

Andrew Gray, founder of Harrogate firm Truth Legal, whose staff have returned to work at Victoria Avenue, believes it is in everyone’s interests to go back to normal.

He said: The businesses of Harrogate must return to the office in a safe way, for our town needs our presence and our cash. The pandemic has revealed that, economically, we are all inextricably connected.

“On a practical level, the duty of any professional person is to train the next generation. Such training cannot all take place by Zoom, email or telephone.”

It’s a feeling shared to a degree by North Yorkshire County Council. Its deputy leader Coun Gareth Dadd said: “We are already seeing some effect on local town/city centre economies so this shift towards home-working must be balanced with the above comments of staff and the realignment of our town and city centres with reduced footfall and the financial support to those local economies they bring.”

But predictions of the death of the office may be premature.

Coun Dadd said, although the county council had moved away from designated desks for all but a limited number of desk-based staff some years ago, the reality was that working at home was not suitable for all its employees.

Coun Dadd said: “We recently ran a staff survey on working arrangements during Covid. While many staff saw both personal and work related benefits to working from home, such as no travel time, the majority also missed the contact and support of a work place.

“We had many staff who could have continued to work from home but were keen to return for personal and practical reasons. Homeworking is certainly not for everyone.”

Sandra Doherty, Chief Executive of Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce, said, perhaps, no hard and fast choice had to be made.

She said: “It is important to think about all different types of both businesses and people. Perhaps it’s time to look at ways to enable both to happen, so that the best of both worlds could be gained.”

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