As the first wave of the COVID-19 crisis begins to recede and lockdown measures ease, it’s becoming clear that we can no longer expect to “go back to normal”. Just as a flood sometimes permanently changes the course of a river, so the pandemic has shifted the course of work life, possibly forever. First, the long-predicted move to remote working has been forced on even the most reluctant employers; and second, the new demands of physical distancing will reshape offices and may even eliminate them altogether.
2020’s mass experiment in remote working has proved, in many ways, remarkably successful. One standout lesson has been that many people have really loved working from home. In my own company we surveyed everyone and without exception, every single staff member indicated that they would do so permanently if they could. There are many reasons for this: No commutes, more flexibility in arranging working hours, freedom from some kinds of distraction, more time with family.
At the same time, working from home brings new stresses and challenges of its own: Lack of suitable space to work in, loss of access to taken-for-granted office resources like high quality printers and scanners, IT problems and much less efficient networks all add to the burden. Some people struggle to manage their own schedules and miss the structure of the office routine, and there are also different distractions and interruptions to deal with. Those with small children have had a particularly tough time—being stuck with the office bore or gossip, it turns out, has nothing on being stuck with a housebound toddler.
Apart from the practical aspects of the office, the losses people feel most strongly are intangible. Being able to read each other’s body language and the unspoken atmosphere of a room, the quick hallway chat, the five-minute pop-in to a meeting, the catchup in the car park – none of these have decent virtual equivalents. Some of us are missing colleagues with whom we used to chat daily, but now haven’t seen for months because they aren’t on the same work team. Company culture is largely built on these casual interactions—and they just aren’t the same in Zoom.
So, as much as permanent, full-time work-from-home options are attractive, they are not necessarily the solution. Neither, however, can we return to the old, pre-COVID office. Working side by side in an enclosed space has become potentially deadly—and even when or if an effective treatment or vaccine is discovered, we can never again afford to be complacent about what the next new disease outbreak might bring.
We’re expecting—and trying to develop for ourselves—a new hybrid of home and office working that allows everyone to find their sweet spot. Our future office will almost certainly be smaller, with a lot more hot desks, more widely spaced—and a higher cleaning budget to ensure all the surfaces are disinfected daily, at least until a reliable vaccine is widely available and implemented. We may have in-person team meetings one day a week, or one week a month, and gather larger groups for regular lunches or contact days. We’ll probably see an increase in temporary rentals of boardrooms and conference spaces, and conferences and workshops will probably become an even more important part of our annual calendar.
We’ve also begun the process of learning new ways to work together, and new tools for replacing the face-to-face interaction that until recently we thought was irreplaceable. From project management tools to online shared whiteboards to team chats, there is life beyond conference calls. We look forward to the learning curve.