Whether working from home has been a productivity and wellness-enhancing revelation or a burden to be shouldered with stoic resolve depends on your job, your home setup and your personality.
However just as air travel changed beyond recognition after 9/11, traditional offices appear set to become safer, cleaner and less pleasing environments too.
As Boris Johnson unveiled guidance on Sunday for bringing Britain out of lockdown. Each employment sector will have to adapt in different ways but those of us who work in conventional offices will find they look and feel very different in the coronavirus era.
One noticeable change will be proximity to other workers; we’ll all sit at least 2 metres apart. There will be no squeezing in the extra person in a meeting room.
Also forget hot desking, and the use of printers and whiteboards will be frowned upon. Tape will mark off walking lanes and close off desks to enforce distancing and spacing, even in the lift. Hand Sanitiser stations will be everywhere. We’ll arrive and leave at staggered times, in single file, from separate entrances if possible, and quite possibly team beers will be something that takes a while to come back.
Some will happily accept these curtailments in order to be back in the physical fray of office life, and out of their own kitchens, back bedrooms and living rooms. For this group, there’s no substitute for face time with colleagues and the energy an office brings.
Others have found remote working saves time and energy on commuting, while it has the happy advantage of lessening your chances of infection. Many of these people feel it also provides fewer distractions and a better life balance without sacrificing productivity (although others have found all hope of balance or delineation between work and personal time has gone out the window).
I am a huge fan of “WFH” and all of our companies have operated this to some degree since 2011 and depending on the individual role, I definitely feel that a remote-working option balanced with plenty of office time is optimal. This is confirmed by my own experience over the past 9 years plus academic studies that show workers are happiest when they have some control over their environment.
A recent survey of at-home workers found more than half wanted to continue to work remotely as much as possible, although the number dropped to 53% from 62% the longer their spell of remote working continued. Workers in finance, technology, media, insurance and professional services were most likely to prefer remote working, however from personal experience I think b2b sales teams do not work well when split up as ‘hunting as a pack’ is the best, and possibly only, approach.
What’s surprising is how positively managers view the experience, with more than half saying they’ll allow employees to work remotely more often. The result may be extra regional ‘offices’ which might be little more than a dedicated space at a co-working business centre, less business travel and more Zoom meetings.
There may be other benefits to the change. When we’re in the office, we may value our relationships with colleagues a bit more than in the days before Covid-19. Given that many women take career breaks because of their employer’s rigidity on working practices rather than any desire for a long pause, a new flexibility may prove beneficial to women. It may help men become more engaged in parenting and home life.
Whilst remote working has been increasing in recent years, although it still only applied to 5% of the country’s workforce before this period of lockdowns. That’s likely to change, given that we have now realised the number, and range of jobs, that can be done remotely and the government’s need to manage the flow of people using the train system and London’s tube network.
As Britain responds to the growing pressure from business leaders to provide return dates, workers with very little contact in their offices could be back at work before the end of June, while others would return in the second half of July. But Johnson is asking those who can work from home to keep doing so. That would make sense. His “stay at home” message has been so successful that many are reluctant to return to work environments.
Still, the reopening plans will also create confusion, and employers demanding clarity are unlikely to get it. As prescriptive as it sounds, the new guidance leaves a lot up to interpretation, sprinkling in phrases such as “where possible.” Britain’s trade unions are already pressing for clearly mandated safety measures. Labour leader Keir Starmer has criticised the consultation documents as too vague and he’s calling for a “national safety standard.”
I haven’t walked around London’s Canary Wharf where our main office is based since we closed in March with all of our editorial, design, research and back office staff all working from home. All our staff are working and we have even recruited two additional members of the team as we continue to grow our brands. However I picture the deserted retail spaces, with shop after shop closed and the streets and offices normally the working home of some 522,000 professionals, who emerge from the Jubilee Line or DLR stations each morning deserted.
But just as people got used to new rules for flying after 9/11 taking their shoes off and having no liquids, as the first examples, I suspect we’ll be back to sharing space with colleagues eventually. It’s just going to be different.