The coronavirus pandemic has upended our lives in countless ways, but one of the biggest changes has come in the way we work. The white-collar landscape has changed so much that it’s hard to imagine things ever returning fully to the pre-pandemic setup.
But is that a bad thing? Or is the new normal a thing to celebrate?
A changing cityscape
Cities around the world are looking very different these days. The mass migration to home working in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has left city centres facing something of an identity crisis.
Business districts have become largely emptied of the legions of office workers who, just a year ago, commuted in from all corners of the city (and beyond), jostling for space on public transport before queuing up at one of the many coffee houses that had sprung up solely to serve their pre-work needs. It was a story that played out Monday to Friday in every city across the globe. And it was a story that ended in the UK with the start of the first national lockdown.
A litmus test for tech
The coronavirus pandemic has served to act as an unexpected and enforced pilot scheme for mass-scale remote working. Even the most forward-thinking businesses with the most extreme business-continuity plans hadn’t envisioned what could actually happen. Small organisations and multinational corporations alike had to move swiftly to safeguard their employees and migrate to a new way of working, all within a matter of days, and it has been a true test of the technology systems businesses had in place. And as with many pilot schemes, it has returned some surprising results.
A challenge to traditional models
Before the pandemic, the accepted wisdom (at least among traditional business leaders) was that physical offices were critical to productivity, company culture and talent acquisition. The biggest, shiniest office blocks in prime locations had become status symbols, signalling a business’s economic as well as personnel credentials.
These ‘traditional’ organisations were holding firm to the belief that if a workforce couldn’t be seen it mustn’t be working, and amid rising cries for flexible working, they were doing everything they could to make the office a more attractive proposition. Open-plan spaces for collaboration. Breakout rooms and free breakfasts. On-site gyms and games rooms. Everything geared towards getting people into the office, and keeping them there for as many hours of the day as possible. So when COVID-19 came along to challenge these entrenched beliefs about what workers needed, the results were illuminating.
A different balance
It has been a happy surprise for many business leaders to realise that, actually, not having to commute for four hours a day can have a focussing effect on workers. Productivity has either been unaffected, or has risen, and the wellbeing of workers has increased dramatically as they have discovered a more enjoyable and meaningful work-life balance. The morning train commute has been replaced with a family dog walk or solo jog, with all its attendant health and mental wellbeing benefits. And while people might be starting work later, they are infinitely more focussed, more energised and happier when they do so. The knock-on effect of this is that two-thirds of workers say they are being much more productive.
People are wondering if they want, or even need, to return full-time to the office once the pandemic is over. And even the more traditional business leaders are starting to wonder if a more flexible approach would be better.
Safety means space
Even before the vaccine is rolled out nationally, offices are going to need to find a new balance. Those open-plan offices now look less like collaborative spaces and more like an outbreak waiting to happen. Workers want partitions, they want one-in-one-out systems in the kitchens and the toilets, and they want to take the stairs rather than the lift. They want fewer people in the office, period. Some organisations are likely to (if they haven’t already) implement a rota system that splits the workforce down the middle, with half working remotely on certain days and the other half working in the office. Other organisations may decide there are certain roles that can be performed 100% remotely, 100% of the time. In all these cases, having the systems in place to support workers and facilitate team collaboration is going to be essential.
The tools are there
Luckily, for organisations and businesses of all sizes, the tools to support flexible working and remote collaboration are not only there, they’ve been substantially expanded this year. All the big players like Microsoft and Google have kept their ears to the ground and their noses to the grindstone throughout the pandemic, and have reacted quickly to keep their offerings robust and relevant. Microsoft Teams has done wonders to keep business, education and community groups firing on all cylinders, and G-Suite has added a whole host of new integrations to make teamwork that bit easier while everyone is so disparate.
Offices without boundaries
Technology undoubtedly has a critical role to play in the office of the future. Having the right systems in place is going to be vital for allowing people to safely return to the office. We’ve said before that fewer people will be in the office for some time yet, but even those who can be convinced to come back in will need the ability to desk-hop to allow for regular deep cleaning. And that means the technology needs to be in place to support both remote and roving workers – and to allow them to work together. Workers need to be able to pick up their laptop and move somewhere else (whether to home or to a different floor of the office) and have everything they need move with them. To maintain productivity, collaboration and the office culture, the boundaries between being physically in the office and working remotely need to be removed.
Pick your processes
In terms of processes, it will be tempting for organisations to revert to pre-pandemic practices when it is all over. But in order for businesses to remain responsive and agile in case of future outbreaks, it would be wise to reconfigure processes from a digital-first perspective. This is the only way to ensure there are strong foundations for an improved operating model that ensures resiliency and business continuity, as well as leveraging the best of in-person and remote working.
The post-COVID office offers the perfect opportunity for organisations to break free of suboptimal processes and legacy applications that proliferate merely through inertia. IT managers have the power to get creative, cut costs, and transform their workplaces for the better.
A hybrid office of the future has untold benefits for managers, teams and the economy. Organisations will need to think carefully about what space they need, where they need it, and how best to configure it. Some workers will want to work from home most of the time – they simply won’t want to go back to commuting. And if businesses are to hang on to all the talent they have invested in and nurtured, they’ll need to be flexible in what they expect their teams to do.
Leveraging cheaper real estate to offer satellite offices might become more of the norm, saving money for businesses, but also for workers who, without the commute, could find themselves with an extra £3,000 a year in their pockets. That’s money they’ll pour back into the economy somewhere else.
The office of the future
The groundwork has been set for the office of the future. Workers have been forthcoming about what they want to see happen. They want their output to be judged according to the value they create rather than the time they commit, and three quarters want to maintain the level of flexibility that COVID-19 has afforded them.
Some businesses have already committed to a ‘new normal’, with Twitter among the first to announce its employees could work from home ‘forever’, if that’s what they wanted.
It remains to be seen how things will pan out, but what we can say is that the office is unlikely to ever look the same again and the future of work and office is constantly evolving.
If you would like to speak to an expert about how M247 can support your business and office with remote working, and the technology that underpins this, then contact us today.