The past year has been one of dramatic change, for all of us. Now that parts of the world are beginning to return to a slight sense of normality we can reflect on what changes we wish to keep, and those which we do not. The single greatest change in the last year has surely been the great office exodus. As workplaces closed from March 2020, the majority of organisations moved their employees to work from home for a “brief period”. Of course, as it turned out, this was no brief experiment.
As a result, we have learned new techniques and acclimatised, for better or worse, to working remotely. For many of us, returning to an office on a full time basis is an almost alien concept. The speed with which this change has taken place, given the logistics of WiFi, virtual meetings, and new (to most of us) platforms such as Zoom and Teams, has been remarkable. This is even more true when one considers how slow many professional workplaces are to adapt.
Clearly, there were plenty of teething troubles as we learned new ways of working. Indeed, many businesses were compelled to close down entirely as they lacked the ability to make the necessary steps to stay afloat throughout the year. On the other hand, many organisations have pushed forward into the inevitable evolution with great speed. Some have suggested that we have seen ten years of progress taking place in just one and this could allow those companies who have made the most of the changes to succeed exponentially.
Of course, there has been a mix of both positive and negative consequences. The negative ones come in the form of logistical difficulties; creating an office in a home environment isn’t easy. But bringing the office into the home creates other difficulties in one’s home life. How do you separate work time from family life? How do parents try and work and at the same time take on the responsibility of home schooling their children? Without the normal day-to-day social contact with colleagues, are feelings of isolation not inevitable? The webcam is a poor substitute for personal interaction.
However, there have also been many positives. On the most basic level, we’ve shown what we’re able to achieve when push comes to shove, and while it shouldn’t take a global pandemic to try different ways of working, it’s clear that we can achieve similar levels of productivity in a completely different working environment. Indeed, some organisations have been so pleased with this fully remote based working model, they intend to continue with it even after Covid. This is particularly true of digital and technology businesses.
Other companies will be looking at hybrid models, giving their workforce the flexibility to work both in the office and remotely, tailoring it to fit better into their lives. This appeals to many workers who can avoid a slow and infuriating commute and find they have much more time that works usefully for them. Businesses, too, benefit from a part-time in-office workforce. They can reduce their overall office space, and create instead more flexible hot-desking options. Also, without the need for staff to be in a particular location, businesses can search further afield, increasing their options to find and hire the best possible talent.
Finally, while there are obvious benefits to having face-to-face conversations and meetings, travelling for business has become much less of a necessity. This will surely return to some degree, but many meetings will now be replaced with a continuously improving array of digital tools and video calling.
Moving on from the subject of remote working, most organisations are taking a closer look at overall employee wellbeing. While clearly not a new idea, this focus has certainly gained momentum over the last year and the potential problems of workers burning out or not coping with the isolation of working from home. LinkedIn, for example, have been testing a variety of different methods to look after their employees’ wellbeing. The most recent took the form of a full week off for the entire company (not including a skeleton crew to keep things ticking over; they get a week off later on). When the whole company is off at the same time, you’re not returning to a daunting build-up of work and emails on your first day back.
All of this begs the question of what comes next and what other ideas may take root. The notion of a 4-day working week is not new, but it’s one that is certainly gaining popularity. Working a more intense but shorter week appeals to many who see a 3-day weekend as a better way to focus on other aspects of their lives.
There’s a lot of uncertainty this year ahead of us and while there’s been significant progress to get back to our pre-Covid life, there are still many hurdles to overcome. The main takeaway from our year in isolation is that our working lives will never truly be the same again. Some will shift more than others but the overall perception of how we can work in a post-Covid world has been irrevocably changed.
It’s now up to pioneers and leaders to experiment and adapt to craft the best possible environment and culture for their employees or colleagues moving forward.