Is this really the end of working in the office?

Not long after the COVID-19 pandemic started and the UK entered lockdown in March 2020, people started to talk about the future of the office. This is largely because technology, such as Zoom, has been pretty effective in allowing us to connect with other people face-to-face. Workers have also saved time and money by not having to commute. To a certain extent, there has been an element of surprise that working from home has worked so well, and now people are questioning whether it’s really necessary to go into the office to do a decent day’s work. 

Businesses, who up to now have mostly resisted remote working as a way of work, have realised that they can reduce their own costs, including rent, which is a major overhead. So some businesses are now taking steps to reduce office space and implement a remote working model or hybrid model where workers spend the bulk of their time at home and the remainder in the office.

But is this the right time to be making fundamental changes to the way people work? The end is in sight but the post-pandemic UK still seems to be a way off. Would it not be better at this point for businesses to observe, consider the options, and make a decision once lockdown has ended and the new (or old) order has bedded in for a bit?

Here are some questions businesses should think about before committing to a permanent shift to remote working:

  • Workers may be productive and efficient working on some tasks at home, but has everything worked efficiently? There has been a lot of discussion around how collaborative tasks work best in person. How well has this worked in the past year? Are there any projects which have been put on hold because it wasn’t worth starting until people can work alongside each other again? 
  • Workers may prefer to work from home, and many businesses have asked workers through feedback surveys which way of working they prefer. But what has the customer experience been? What is the impact of workers working at home on customers? Have they received the same service? Does it, in fact, take more effort and more hours from workers to give the same customer service than if they had been working in the office? Or are businesses taking the view that it’s ok to give customers a deal which is “good enough” but perhaps not the optimum service they once provided? 
  • How easy is it to train junior employees and workers, or even integrate new team members remotely? There have been lots of reports on how existing workers feel about working from home, but articles around how junior employees feel or how well integrated new team members feel are largely non-existent. What has that experience been like for them? 
  • And finally, what is it about working from home that workers actually like? Is it because they want to spend more time with their family? If so, perhaps working less is the answer, not working remotely. Remote working can be, but isn’t necessarily, flexible. Job-sharing has never really taken off in the private sector, but this may be a good time to reconsider its merits. Or do employees want to work from home because they find the work environment toxic or want to avoid colleagues? This would suggest that it’s not necessarily that the worker wants to work from home, but that they fundamentally don’t like their work, and that requires a different solution.  

While some workers are all in favour of remote working and spending more days at home than in the office, some workers aren’t. They are keen to get back into an office atmosphere. This may mean that workers end up gravitating to businesses that most reflect their personality type, which could lead to a lack of diversity of personality.  Businesses where working in the office dominates may find that the workers display a narrow range of personality traits, and equally those businesses where working from home is encouraged may attract a similar narrow range of personality type. Maybe this isn’t, or won’t be, a problem, but in a world where we’re trying to move away from recruiting in our own image, this particular diversity may be lost. 

The end of working in the office?

With all these questions in mind, it seems too early to make permanent, big changes. And who knows, maybe two years down the line, we’ll all be begging to go back into an office to escape numerous family members who are also now working or studying from home. But it is a good time to consider and trial some changes on a longer-term basis. HR will be key to this trial and review, helping businesses to devise new ways of working that suits the particular business taking into account customer needs and business culture. 

Guest blog by Claire Templeton
©️Copyright 2021 Claire Templeton, Employment lawyer and Work Coach. 

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