By Dr Nicola Millard, Principal Innovation Partner, BT
Crisis often brings out both the best and the worst in us. But it does one thing very effectively – it forces us to revisit the ways we do things. It also gets us to pull together to achieve these things in timescales which would be inconceivable pre-crisis.
Couple the impact of Coronavirus with both the digital revolution and the climate emergency – and the big question is whether our ways of working have changed forever?
Homeworking has been the big growth area in the pandemic – with increases globally of between 20-40%. It’s not new – BT’s first experiments were back in 1992 – but hadn’t really become the norm for many organisations, despite cloud technologies and better connectivity making it cheaper and easier. With commutes involving putting on a pair of fluffy slippers and walking across a corridor, research has shown that homeworkers are around 20% more productive than their office-based counterparts. But, as many of us have recently discovered, long-term homeworking can be hard when some people feel as if they’re living at work. Isolation and burnout can be issues.
Homeworking also only really works when you have one vital component – a home. This massive global experiment has exposed a massive gulf between older, more affluent employees who have larger homes, and typically younger, less affluent and urban-based, employees who don’t.
The answer for most organisations isn’t to close all their offices and embrace ubiquitous homeworking – because it doesn’t necessarily work for a diverse workforce.
The rumours of the offices’ death have been greatly exaggerated. But their role has also been evolving over the past few years. Pre-Coronavirus, offices were becoming places where we went to socialise about work and collaborate, rather than do “heads down” work. Although the traditional open plan office was built to maximise “bums on seats”, new, more flexible, funkier office designs were being built to maximise collisions and conversations.
This has been turned upside-down by the pandemic. Social distancing requires employees to actively avoid each other. The need to manage scaled down office capacity will inevitably mean that not everyone will be able to be in the office all the time. For the short-term anyway, the office becomes the place where people go when they have nowhere else suitable to work, where security is an issue, or where access is needed to specialist equipment. It becomes a matter of ‘permission to work in the office’, rather than ‘permission to work from home’.
Smaller, more localised co-working spaces may also become more attractive. Employees may not feel confident taking public transport, and offices which can be reached on foot, or by cycle, can be safer, healthier and more carbon neutral. Without a need to commute long distances everyday into a central city office space, there may also be options for employees to move to cheaper and bigger housing stock away from expensive urban centres.
Eventually, we’ll return to the buzz of the office – we are, after all, social creatures – but it might not be so often. This inevitably means that much of our collaboration becomes digital-by-default. Even if some colleagues are in the office, many will be distant, so the most accessible “common ground” for collaboration is likely to be via the same digital tools which have kept many of us connected effectively during the pandemic.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer once said that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste“. We need to learn from the positives of the last few months and introduce more choices in the ways that we work, making an inclusive, digital workplace the norm and meeting face-to-face when it really matters. Ultimately, the discussion shouldn’t be about office versus remote, but flexibility based on employee preferences and roles. It’s about enabling individuals to work smarter, wherever they happen to be.