How will the work from home culture, accelerated by the pandemic, influence how we organise our office space and the buildings we occupy?
Could coronavirus compliance affect the profitability of our business, our productivity, and our corporation’s mindset? And what do we need to do to make businesses productive and healthy?
The current crisis has been transformational. Our working habits were changed forcibly and overnight, with 49 per cent of UK employees working from home (WFH) during the lockdown period. We are currently experiencing a disruptive period of rapid and forced evolution into an era of remote working, and our reliance on technology and good working practices to achieve and survive this has increased tenfold. It is up to us now – and our employees – to determine whether the COVID-19 crisis is just that – a crisis – or the catalyst for real and lasting change.
Working from home isn’t new or exclusive to the pandemic. In the UK, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) had shown a growth in the number of people working from home in the five-year period before the virus hit. There were an estimated 1.7 million people who said that they worked mainly from home in 2019; just more than five per cent of the total workforce. The ONS research also revealed that WFH applied to an older (age 30+), professional group of higher-earners and the majority were based in London and the South.
In March 2020, we were all told to ‘stay at home’ and, as stated above, almost half of us found ourselves WFH. The trend was reflected globally. In the US, a Gallup poll revealed that the percentage of people WFH jumped from 31 per cent to 62 per cent in one month (March to April).
Writing in July 2020, towards the end of lockdown in the UK, we take a look at the impact of working away from the office on how we work – and the challenges and opportunities it brings.
Video conferencing and cloud-based computing have been crucial in the move from a physical workspace to our new virtual realities. Microsoft likened the shift in working as seeing “two years of digital transformation in two months”; in April, its Teams application reported 200 million meeting participants in a single day.
As well as the obvious people issues and blurred lines between home and office, the business community need to ensure that all the connections work well. In December last year, it was reported by Ofcom that just 10 per cent of all homes currently have fibre optic connections which, according to Adi Gaskell, writing for Forbes, is behind other countries where high-speed fibre optic now makes up half of fixed wireless internet in nine OECD countries. According to Gaskell, “This could result in considerable disruption, especially for broadband-intensive sectors and for those living in areas still predominantly served by copper-based networks. Not only are such networks slower, but they’re also less robust and subject to greater drop-out.”
The lockdown highlighted the cracks in the system and showed what needs to be addressed if, in the future, more of us have to or choose to work at home.
According to the Daily Telegraph: “Research from network monitoring firm thousandeyes.com revealed that the UK experienced 13 outages in the week of 13 April, which rose to 21 outages the following week. The week of 27 April saw another 20 incidents.” The Telegraph also pointed to results from a survey from 4G Internet that found, of the 2,000 people asked in the UK, a third had experienced internet issues during lockdown. As anyone who worked at home and experienced a loss of broadband knows, these disruptions are stressful, and many are pushing for the government to act to improve our broadband connections.
Challenges of returning to the office
As companies begin to return to work, there’s a range of considerations that will make working from home more likely for many workers to ensure companies stay productive, safe and profitable.
New routines such as using hand sanitiser and having your temperature taken as you enter your workplace will have an impact on the time available to work. And before you even get to work, you may have had to try an alternative way to get in to avoid crowded buses or tubes. Then, when you finally get to your desk, you may find you’re sitting further away from your colleagues, there’ll be new rules around meeting rooms and shared spaces, and we will communicate differently.
Forward-thinking companies are creating guidelines to help employees returning to the office, for example, recommending staff only to return to work if they cannot work efficiently or effectively from home, as well as adding webcams to desktops, and providing lockers and storage solutions for coats and bags.
Heather Beach, founder and MD at The Healthy Work Company, suggests that some businesses will return their staff in A and B rotas. But she adds: “We are seeing a real culture of experimentation from how much office space they need, to how to utilise time in the office most effectively – perhaps for training or meetings.”
“We are sequencing days when staff should come into the office, and other times when working from home,” says business owner and award-winning London-based architect Simone De Gale (simonedegale.com). “As it has been close to three months since the lockdown period, we now have our data management systems fully up and running, and the transition was smooth,” she adds.
Trust will be central to making things work in our new normal. As Beach warns: “Changing core hours isn’t easy in international businesses, especially where there is reluctance from managers to move away from a traditional eight-hour working day. This is a source of frustration for some HR and H&S managers who want to encourage trust in people to produce results in the workplace.”
Health and safety
And, of course, many industries are simply not able to work remotely, for example, construction. “Safety takes a hit when managers are not on site,” says Beach, who is a health and safety specialist.
“Health and safety compliance will be a real source of concern to those businesses who, due to the pandemic, had a stay of execution from the HSE regarding assessment,” says Beach. But as the situation continues, things such as a display screen equipment assessment, a general risk assessment, and training on areas such as electrical and fire safety, as well as security for lone working, will all be required,” she adds.
Re-purposing office space
Architect Simone De Gale has faced business challenges. “Where we previously had eight staff, we can now only accommodate four. It will cost us double to retain the same working office space. Therefore, we will continue to operate in WFH mode, with some work taking place in the office, in particular, client and team meetings,” she says.
She remains cautiously optimistic: “We will get better at this; landlords may find other ways to use their premises such as residential spaces, or a mix of residential/work spaces.”
Exploring new ways to work and use our space is a positive thing. “Employers have found that it is quite easy to adapt, and employees are reporting higher levels of satisfaction with regards to work/life balance,” adds De Gale.
The human-centric future workplace
The next normal could find people increasingly working where they feel comfortable by connecting using great technology. It’s likely there will be a shift in how offices look and the purpose they serve, and their survival into the future will depend on the successful integration of wellbeing in the workplace. Employee health and business wealth go hand-in-hand in the next normal.
This article first appeared in the launch issue of the zone print magazine.