With permanent work-from-home policies being rolled out by the likes of Salesforce, Facebook and Microsoft, it’s looking like offices might never be the same again. Many businesses have closed office locations, adjusted their IT systems to support remote working, and, to their surprise, found they could operate just as well remotely. In fact, many organizations have even reported productivity gains. Hindsight has exposed the real inefficiencies in office life, and it’ll be difficult for leaders to demand fully returning to old ways. Is the concept of the workplace (as we know it) dead? Or will it bounce back stronger than ever?
The benefit of hindsight
Former office workers have spent the best part of a year working from home and probably can’t imagine going back to exactly how things were. Partly because, from a productivity standpoint, there were massive flaws in the conventional system. For example, it’s most likely that you don’t mourn the commute. Particularly if you live in a city like London, where the average commute time is 74 minutes. Studies have shown that whilst this buffer time is important for our wellbeing, creating separation between work life and home life, employees are now free to define their own buffer activities as many have done after missing that commute time in lockdown.
Another strain on employees was the obligation of coming to the office every day, regardless of whether there was a tangible need to be there. This can lead to “Presenteeism", a productivity issue that comes from employees coming to work while unwell physically, mentally or emotionally. Also, when going into the office every day, many employees find it hard to find a work-life balance and feel they are not spending enough time with loved ones, sometimes leading to feelings of guilt or resentment. That said, creating a work-life balance when working from home has also proved challenging, because it’s harder to disengage from your job if you’re working from home.
How technology enabled new working environments
Since even before the pandemic, the workplace was being reimagined, and employees were calling out for more flexibility with regard to where they work from. Technology played an important role in this shift, fully enabling remote working through cloud-based SaaS platforms that employees can access from anywhere with a half-decent internet connection. Microsoft are a great example, and have been leading the way in remote work capabilities for decades.
Over the last decade a number of start-ups have been built from the ground up through a 100% remote team. These types of companies attract talent from a wider pool of verticals and geographic locations due to the added flexibility. It felt like a shift was happening, but very slowly due to one large obstacle in the road: trust.
Back in February 2013, Yahoo!’s (then) CEO Marissa Mayer banned working from home which raised several questions about the acceptance of remote working for years afterwards. This move made news around the world and was heralded by some as the collapse of remote working. In some quarters, the feeling was, ‘if Yahoo! can’t make it work, who can?’ Many companies were fearful and dismissive of work-from-home policies, as they didn’t trust employees enough to let them define their own workplace and maintain perceived levels of productivity
Fast-forward to the present and, like with many things, the pandemic has been a catalyst for change. Despite employees across a number of verticals proving they can work from home productively, trust has still been an issue. Last year there was an increase in sales of surveillance software which employers were using to keep tabs on remote workers.
Anti-surveillance software also experienced a boom as employees fought back. And the employer-employee game of cat-and-mouse continues. If you are considering implementing surveillance software, consider the negative message this puts across to your employees. It will create a culture of distrust that can damage your reputation as an organisation. If you go down this road, don’t be surprised if lose some of your top talent and read about a damaging shift in your company’s culture on sites like Glassdoor.
Defining the new workplace
There might just be no going back to a pre-pandemic “normal” as we knew it. The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns across the globe have challenged many aspects of our lives in a multitude of ways, both personally and professionally. In many more cases than before, the new workplace can be defined by us, the employees, as we’ve proved we can stay productive and be trusted to work from home. .
Spotify recently announced their Work From Anywhere program, which gives their employees total flexibility when it comes to choosing a work location as well as whether they go into the office. Spotify explained that operating as a distributed organization will produce better and more efficient ways of working through more intentional use of communication and collaboration practices, processes and tools.
Interestingly, while some leaders are doubting whether their employees are doing enough work and implementing surveillance software to track them, the real concern is that employees may be working too much. A global research study on over 3 million employees in North America, Europe and the Middle East revealed that the average workday has increased by 8.2% during the pandemic.
Technology leaders should be thinking about ways to reduce overloading employees with work and encouraging more breaks and downtime in the working day whilst fostering a culture of kindness and patience and whilst continuing to humanize working from home. Let’s accept that many of us have parents, children and pets and other demands on our lives, and that we should be free to be honest if we need to fulfil those duties during the traditional working day. The more we understand and relate to each other’s challenges whilst staying focussed on outcomes (not hours), the better our professional lives will be.
What about the office?
To justify its existence, the office will likely become a more of a destination with a purpose. Fundamentally, that purpose will be human interaction, rather than head-down-at-desk working. Workplace design used to be all about desk space. But new working patterns mean organizations will need flexible spaces focused on collaboration and team-building and, as a result, will need landscaped environments to reduce the noise.
Companies could see this as an opportunity to downsize their existing office-space footprint, to reduce associated operating costs and invest more in technology and attracting talent. They may find they don’t need as much space because people work remotely more often. In that case, they may choose not to cut their rent bill but to spend similar amounts on a smaller, more characterful building in an amenity-rich central location rather than a featureless office park.
When we are safe to return to offices, it should be about utilizing the office space when it truly makes sense to do so. Leaders should only really be encouraging employees to be onsite for a handful of reasons; team activities, client facing interactions and even the odd pub lunch all spring to mind.
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