Working Out the World of Work…

6th July 2020

One size doesn’t fit all.

As the government continues to introduce further measures to ease lockdown restrictions across the country, one of its greatest challenges has been to balance the health implications and potential risk of causing a second wave, with the severe economic impact already felt by so many and resulting in the need to get everyone back to work as quickly and as safely as possible over the coming weeks.

But one size doesn’t fit all. The effects of a return to work, whether for the self-employed, those who cannot work from home or for those who have now long adapted to working from home, will differ greatly depending on geography, as well as the local socio-economic structures in place.

We know from research recently carried out by Thinktank Centre for Cities, that in the Northern and Midland regions of the country, when compared with London and the South East, there are proportionately less people in self-employment. However, for those that are, self-employment is more likely to be the only source of income and it is likely to be lower skilled and lower-paid. Self-employed roles in the North and Midlands include Construction, Transport and Hospitality, sectors which we know have been some of the hardest hit by the economic impact of COVID-19.  

Jobs that could be more easily done from home, such as media/marketing, finance and consultancy based roles, are concentrated in cities within the Greater South East, with 1 in 2 workers in London able to work from home compared with 2 in 10 workers in places like Barnsley, Burnley and Stoke. Cities like Manchester, Leeds, Warrington, and Newcastle are perhaps exceptions as they have a higher share of jobs that could shift to home working.

It’s understanding these local, behavioral differences that will be key for brands looking to make an effective return to OOH in the second half of 2020.

A Phased Return

The Government’s phased approach to ending lockdown is set to have direct implications for our working lives in the near future. New behavioural patterns will start to emerge, particularly when it comes to how we get to and from work, impacting strategies for OOH that previously relied on the consistency of the AM/PM commute to target ‘working’ audiences.

On the 13th of May, it was announced that all those workers who could not carry out their work from home were strongly encouraged to return to the workplace, which for the most part included the Construction and Manufacturing sectors. Analysis carried out by the Resolution Foundation found that the effects of that announcement were not in fact felt equally across society, with men, working in a trade and with few or no qualifications, more likely to be affected. Nor were such effects felt equally across the UK’s labour markets, where once again at a local level, the North and Midland regions were found to be disproportionately more effected than London and the South East

There are similar geographical differences, when it comes to the ways people travel to and from work, particularly around the governments advice to steer clear of public transport. Such measures have only really been found to impact those workers in and around the Greater London region where 60% of commuters use either public transport, walking or cycling as a means for getting to and from work. However when we consider the UK as a whole, the impact of being asked to steer clear of public transport is noticeably less, with as little as 5-10% of commuters using public transport for going to work, opting instead to travel by car.

Looking at the picture for London, the obvious benefit for brands advertising in the Capital when it comes to delivering mass awareness to a high concentration of potential consumers, should not be ignored. However, the latest Apple Mobility data suggests driving and walking are still down considerably at 29% and 57% respectively when compared with pre-lockdown levels.

Although there are signs of improvement beginning to show, particularly with the re-opening of non-essential shops from the 15th June and with pubs, hotels, hairdressers and cinema following suit from the 4th July, when it comes getting to and from work, Public transport usage shows an even slower recovery, down 64%.

The compulsory wearing of facemasks may go some way to help increase confidence in boarding a London bus or an underground tube carriage, but the reality is that working from home for many is still the most feasible and indeed safest option and so for now, any further increases in footfall are likely to remain gradual.

The continuation for homeworking in the near future might have for now confined London’s ‘rush hour’ to the history books, but with the Mayor of London’s recent announcement that large areas of city will be closed to cars and vans, allowing more people to walk and cycle to work safely and without such reliance on public transport networks, the fundamental impact these changes will have on Londoners movement patterns will need be a key consideration for brands looking to re-engage with audiences in this unique OOH space.

What does this mean for OOH?

Clearly, consideration must be given to how we plan and optimize OOH campaigns in the coming months to reflect these varying behavioral patterns and mobility levels in different parts of the country. Just because the Underground, Bus and Rail Networks are seeing significant drops in passenger usage in and around London, this doesn’t reflect mobility levels seen in other parts of the country, especially when it comes to getting to and from work.

Consideration must also be given to the types of messaging brands use to communicate with consumers. For so many, seeing events develop over the last few months with such uncertainty, has been incredibly demoralising, worrying and intimidating. Just as they were at the start of the pandemic, people are looking to brands for guidance, trustworthiness, and reliability to help them get out the other side. As priorities broaden from primarily health and well-being, to include the financial and economic implications – you only have to look at the headlines in the press over one 24hr period to get a sense of the major financial impact the COVID crisis is having on the UK economy and people’s individual livelihoods – brands not being seen to show the level of empathy and sensitivity within those areas and business sectors most effected could find their campaigns having an unintentionally negative impact.

OOH has long been regarded as a brand safe, trustworthy media platform. This has been proven time and again in recent months where OOH has been at the forefront of sharing messages of solidarity and support to our Key Workers as well as providing guidance and advice. This should stand to give brands the confidence that provided the message and context is right, the placements will be too.

Looking Local

With industry bosses such as Mark Read the chief executive of WPP and Jes Staley, the chief executive of Barclays questioning whether a full return to inner city office space will ever happen, it’s probably fair to assume that the practice of working from home isn’t going to change anytime soon.

Given the numerous extra measures businesses will have to adopt (office re-design, rigorous cleaning protocols, introduction of shift patterns, etc.) just to have 25-30% occupancy, we are perhaps likely to see a more localised middle ground emerging, whether through the increased use of Co-Working spaces, the likes of Fora, WeWork and Worklife, where teams can meet up on an ad-hoc basis, or as Stanley suggested in a recent interview with the Guardian – ‘a more de-centralized approach to staff working, including the prospect of local branches becoming satellite offices for more employees’.

For those who have been able to continue working from home throughout lockdown, there has been reassurance in the fact that certain businesses have been able to carry on with relative ease. However, even with +80% of their workforce (in the case of Barclays Bank) working from their kitchen tables, face to face communication and social interaction of colleagues is still a significant and often necessary part of corporate culture that cannot effectively be replicated in a remote setting.

A more flexible mix of home and satellite office-based work coupled with the acceleration of new work based technologies facilitating everything from touchless VR office spaces to delivery and logistics solutions that include surplus to requirement office car parks being turned into mini distribution hubs for packages, could well become part of the ‘new normal’ allowing workers to still maintain their social-distance, but at the same time benefit from the physical interaction with their co-workers.

From an OOH perspective, these new behavioral patterns could conceivably pave the way for new media owner players to emerge, owning these new suburban OOH environments, bringing new ambient media formats to market and enabling brands to better target the ‘Remote’ workforce in more localized manor.

Local ambient environments such as such as gyms, leisure centres and local shopping hubs which may not have been regular features on OOH plans previously, will also likely see higher audience impacts in the immediate weeks and months after the lockdown ends, as people return to previous routines, and are therefore likely deliver higher levels of effect than initially expected.

More ‘guerrilla’ techniques such as local street art, murals and stencilling which will really cut through during this time, particularly as the public start to re-engage and appreciate their outdoor surroundings, perhaps more than they ever had previously, should not be ruled out a highly effective outdoor communications channels.

What does this mean for OOH?

When it comes to planning and implementing effective OOH strategies brands will need to give consideration to the changing mindsets of consumers/workers as lockdowns measures continue to soften.

For the last 3 months, priorities have largely been focused on the basic essentials, as well as health, hygiene and cleaning related provisions, with non-essential items and activities having taken the biggest hit.

A recent study by Accenture suggests that ‘brands will need to explore ways to better connect locally – be it through highlighting local provenance, customizing their offerings for local needs or engaging in locally relevant ways. The study also points to a rise in Conscious Consumption, where Consumers are now much more mindful of what they’re buying; striving to limit food waste, shop in a more cost- conscious way and buy more sustainable options.

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It will be easy to develop a false sense of security as we see the continued and much welcomed, relaxing of social distancing. On the one hand yes this gives brands confidence that consumers are slowly but surely returning to OOH environments, but on the other only time will tell as to whether such relaxing of measure sparks a second wave which will once again put the brakes on…

Buying local and e-commerce, are two of the most noticeable behavioural shifts to take place since the start of lockdown as people opted for purchasing online over venturing out to shops. Nevertheless, whilst the initial need to panic buy might have gone and as consumer confidence begins to return with the re-opening of non-essential shops, bars and restaurants, buying local and buying online are elements of COVID-19 related behaviour that brands would do well to embrace when plotting new OOH strategies in the weeks and months ahead, not least of all because the practice of working from home looks set to remain for some time yet for so many.