Covid-19 has impacted almost every area of our lives and none more so than the way we work. Overnight, offices around the country were abandoned and most staff sent home to work regardless of the suitability of their homes as a workplace. Necessity is the mother of invention and with the very survival of jobs and companies depending on it, new and innovative ways of working, particularly with regards to communications technologies, were adopted and adapted at a staggering pace.
Now with a vaccine on the cards, companies are having to adapt once again to changing circumstances, with a new lockdown in place once more, but with a promise of a return to work if a ‘fair wind’ drives the vaccination programme forward as hoped. When we do return it’s sure to be back to a rather different office than the one left behind.
Back to work
When lockdown eased the first time around, people seemed to be comfortable with visiting local shops and restaurants in a return to some sort of ‘normality’. But when it came to going back into the office, it was a bit of a different story. Only a third of UK office workers went back to their desks. If this trend continues after this lockdown too, some staff might not be keen to return to an office at all. It’s evident that workers in London are much more likely to continue working remotely than their counterparts in other European capitals including Paris, Madrid and Berlin.
One big challenge is balancing the expectations of your individual employees when it comes to working during the coronavirus pandemic, whilst agreeing a strategy for the whole organisation. Even if the risk of infection in the workplace can be reduced, some people will be unwilling to go back if they, or someone they live with is at a greater risk from the virus. Another challenge is the fact that big cities are dependent on public transport which may also pose an increased risk of infection. Combined with the fact that so many people have realised that the time commuting into big cities can be more profitably spent, it’s doubtful that people will ever commute in the same numbers as before.
Home working however, doesn’t suit everyone. If you have space for an office at home it certainly makes working remotely from home easier. However, if you’re a graduate sharing a house with others also working from home, or confined to a tiny bedroom, it can be a more negative experience. As well as feeling pressured to work longer hours, you may feel isolated and detached, which can in turn lead to unproductiveness. It’s also just not possible in all jobs such as healthcare, hospitality, transport or manufacturing.
A new workspace
The office is certainly not dead. Some big corporations, such as Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook, have recently signed new leases on office space in New York, in part due to plummeting prices during the pandemic. But these companies are being realistic and acknowledge the fact that they must offer their staff flexible working opportunities. What they are looking towards is a ‘hybrid’ where they can retain a sense of community among their staff, at the same time as offering them various different working options. One of which is creating office spaces that are compatible with both remote working and in-office experiences.
Some companies may find that their existing spaces are incompatible with changing rules and regulations. Many are committed to making themselves safe in the short- term to reassure staff – by installing hand sanitising stations and plastic barriers between desks – but longer-term, we will certainly be rethinking the use of office space. We’re sure to see new work spaces emerge, to fill the gap between home and work – shared Covid-friendly remote ‘meeting hubs’ on a more local level, versus a traditional larger city-based head office.
Big cities however, such as London and New York offer a unique culture, diversity and energy that isn’t found in many other places. As well as a deeper pool of talent, the sense of community found in a city is very favourable for addressing the most tricky of business challenges. Cities such as London will no doubt pull through to retain their reputation as the most exciting places in the world in which to set up and run a business.
Adaptability will be key
So as the cities begin to re-open post-pandemic and new working hubs are set up locally, businesses must start to plan how they will move forward. Retaining the trust of employees is a huge step in having them on board with changing business practices. We’ve already seen managers coming up with all sorts of crazy incentives to get staff back into the office, from paying for taxis to offering free lunch. It will, however, be the longer-term commitment to staff that will see businesses continue to thrive.
As well as ‘returning to work’, businesses will need to have a structured plan in place to adapt to this new way of working, be it digitisation, new software choices, or re-aligning workforce priorities. Implementing remote working in a structured way and investing in finding a good balance for staff when it comes to work/life balance will be key to retaining productivity.
The organisations that appear to be doing the best are those that are putting together a continuity plan, but are also open to ‘flexible working‘ when it comes to their workforce. Instead of forcing staff back to the office, they trust their employees to be resilient, smart and adaptable, so are keen to find the right balance for them when it comes to how and where they work.