This year, office workers around the world made the quick switch to remote working in response to COVID-19. Working from home has proved more than just possible for a variety of businesses and has consequently changed the way we view traditional office setups. While many of us now have more confidence in both our own technical ability to work from home and our team’s, we’re starting to rethink our preferences and ideas of the workplace in general.

As we’ve watched Asia get back to work and lockdown in the West begin to ease, the future of the office already looks changed. We adapted quickly and, for most, it’s been a success – at least in the short-term. But are we working from home or just sleeping in the office? 

What are the long-term effects that we need to consider before declaring a full workplace revolution? And when or if we do all go back, what will our offices look like? Business leaders and office planners are navigating government advice and scientific evidence to make necessary, planned, gradual and safe returns to work. Here’s what you should consider before opening up again.

Will we go back at all?

It’s not clear when the government will give the go ahead for offices to reopen on a large scale, and the aim currently is to keep a minimum of people using public transport so it’s as safe as possible for essential workers. Until we’re advised otherwise, there’s no rush just yet to get back to the office if we can work from home. 

Tech companies like Facebook and Google closed before government lockdowns were announced and don’t look likely to reopen until potentially 2021. In fact, Twitter told its staff that if they wanted to, and their role allowed it, they could work from home indefinitely. This is a sign of a huge shift from the 5% of people who worked from home before to one where the office becomes far less relevant.

Looking towards a post-COVID world, it’s hard to imagine spending 9-5 in an office. We surveyed our team at MarketFinance and found that 81% of people are very comfortable or comfortable working from home right now and a whopping 96% found their productivity was the same or better. 

In thinking about when they’d be happy to return to the office, a little over a third of our team chose 3-6 months. When we asked why they feel reluctant to return to the office, the main reasons (understandably) were childcare and health. Until schools reopen, it’s going to be unlikely that parents can easily commute in. We decided to commit to a fixed ‘COVID Summer’ and extend working from home until Autumn. This way, we have a clear idea of when remote working may end and time to adequately prepare.

Long-term considerations for home-working

The shift to working from home has already somewhat altered the concept of an 8-hour day for many. As we bring our professional lives into our private domestic spaces, it’s become increasingly difficult to switch off and declare an end to the working day. There’s always something else we can do, and our usual tasks may be taking longer. Burnout is a real threat.

So it’s harder to separate work and life, and back pain becomes an increasingly frustrating consequence of our dining table or sofa set ups. Will this managed productivity collapse if people do suffer more from burnout? It may take a while for businesses to really recognise these effects and it could be too late to sort them out.

Although almost half of the MarketFinance team said they’d be very comfortable if we ended up having to work from home for an extended period, 32% said they’d need further equipment in the long run. We set about getting things like computer monitors, desks and chairs out to anyone who hadn’t taken these with them at the beginning of lockdown or whose at-home alternatives proved to be more of a short-term workaround. 

Additionally, without having the community of the office, there’s a danger that we’ll lose the creativity that comes from collaboration. Currently many of us spend our working day either in videoconference mode or doing pretty reactive work on our computers.

What we’d be losing in abandoning the office entirely is a real sense of company culture and professional loyalty. Microsoft Teams may facilitate your work but it doesn’t grow a company. If there’s one thing that was clear in the many fast pivots and adaptations that companies made at the beginning of the pandemic, it’s that people are key. The creativity of individuals needs to be the focus of the new office era rather than simply our digital solutions.

For younger employees, no access to an office or regular time spent with colleagues and managers could seriously hamper their professional ability and progression. The office is a space where we learn. Delegation and management are trickier as comments have to be written down rather than quickly shared, and questions are harder to ask remotely.

This will affect junior employees more, and it’s odd to think about a company in ten years where colleagues may never have met in person. On top of this, more junior employees are likely to have the least space in their living set up, so remote working is more of a challenge. 

On a more human level, there’s also the social aspect of working in an office to consider. At MarketFinance, we have a diverse team made up of people from all over the world. In anecdotal conversations with many of those newer to the UK, it’s clear that many of the people they’ve met at the office are their real “hangout on the weekend” friends and not just colleagues they get on with from Monday to Friday. As adults, the workplace is one of the few environments in which you regularly meet new people and forge new relationships.

In our Future Work survey, we asked our team about some of the more social issues related to working from home for an extended period. While the majority said they wouldn’t need a physical meeting room to do their job effectively, almost half said they’d join an all-company Townhall meeting in person once a week followed by social gathering. Almost half of our team also said they’d be up for attending regular social events in person.

Is the future flexible?

The office is a useful space. When we go in, we behave differently, we dress differently and we speak differently. Just think of overhearing your partner’s ‘office voice’ when they’re on a Zoom call in the next room and you’ll know how different we all are in a professional setting. There will no doubt come a point where many of us do return to the office, but the space needs to be used differently and more effectively.

More than three-quarters of the MarketFinance team told us they want a hybrid of working from home as well as the office going forward (with only 17% of the team saying they’d want to work from home permanently). For many, this was about spending around 2 days a week in the office – but not necessarily according to a pre-agreed and strictly enforced timetable. 

In a Nerd Forum survey, over two-thirds of people expect that next year they’ll have some form of flexible or hybrid arrangement where they’ll be working from home at least 20-40% of the time. It’s unlikely that the model of having a central headquarters for thousands of employees will return. Many large companies might end up focusing on smaller, more local offices.

Most job roles are not just about going in and responding to emails or completing technical things on computers. Truthfully we’ve learnt we can do this from home. An office is important as a place to collaborate and innovate. With larger, more open spaces, our in-person meetings can generate more energy and creativity that’s hugely beneficial to professional lives. Even idle chitchat and smalltalk have been proven to be useful in offices, and professional development is certainly easier when you can make personal connections with people.

Even if members of the leadership team have their own offices, they’re still in the same building as their team. The office brings its own sense of relative equality that’s hard to replicate remotely, especially as our at-home working environments vary greatly.

Social distancing guidelines for offices

Redesigning office space will be tricky. Every other desk will need to be left empty, ideally with colleagues sitting diagonally away from one another, and you may want to invest in plastic screens or cubicles. Lobbies, corridors and common areas won’t be able to accommodate as many people at once. Lifts will even need to be limited to two people per journey. It’s pretty obvious that social distancing means not everyone will be able to be in at once as we need to be better spaced out.

Minimising exposure to potential risk is the main aim and the way you decide to accommodate this will be up to you. In Asian countries that were affected by the SARS epidemic, offices adapted to promote the physical health of their employees with thermal imaging screens to monitor the temperatures of everyone who walks in. Lifts have clearly signed sections to help people maintain safe distances and are disinfected frequently – even hourly in some buildings.

UK offices will need to promote similar measures. A few things worth considering are:

  • Preventative residual microbial treatment (fogging) before reopening
  • Taking temperatures upon arrival
  • Supplying plenty of masks and sanitiser
  • Directional signage and controls on the number of people in common areas, corridors or near desks
  • Avoiding large groups in meetings or socials
  • Regular sanitisation procedures in offices
  • No belongings left on desks overnight
  • Rotating which teams come in on which days
  • No external visitors
  • Flexible commute times
  • Providing more space for bikes
  • Limiting the number of people in the building
  • Removing touch-based security systems
  • Asking employees to bring their own food in

The guidelines for all of the above need to be very clear and distributed to everyone. These measures should help you maintain a healthy workforce and build trust in your management of the situation. It’s important to think about the training you might need for staff to make sure the measures are effectively being followed.

It’s also worth considering what the future of the commute will be like. Arguably this is the least safe part of office working. So for many people, public transport is the key motivator for working from home. Consider what alternatives are available and the help you can make on this front, even if it’s just promoting a cycle-to-work scheme. 

This is a route that we’ve decided to take at MarketFinance, launching our cycle-to-work scheme a couple of weeks ago. Even if we do end up working remotely for some time, it’s great to know that the team can be out and about in the meantime cycling for exercise – or just pure enjoyment.

What if there’s a second wave?

It’s also really important to consider what contingency plans you have in case there’s a second wave and we re-enter lockdown. Work out what information or data you need to make your decisions on the safety of your office space. Will you try to get your team tested to make sure you’re keeping everyone safe? And if someone tests positive, do you have the structures in place to inform the relevant people and adapt their working set up appropriately?

When (if) you do get back to the office, in whatever capacity and on whatever schedule, don’t ditch the progress you made in remote working. Make sure everyone on the team is as happy as they can be with their home office set up and work out what you can provide to make the experience easier for those who’ve struggled. Anticipate and plan for a repeat: don’t completely dismantle the set up.

A space to collaborate and innovate

Even leading up to this point, people have been predicting the demise of office space and its relevance to the modern worker. They’ve been labelled inefficient because of commuting and enabling presenteeism, they’re overcrowded and even seen as distracting with all their small talk and office politics. 

But for all their negative aspects, the life of business is made by its people. Not having a space where you can all get together to connect in person, where you can inspire creativity and collaboration, would be a huge shame. The work now is in how to model the safest environment to respond to virus transmission, but this is also a great time to rethink how we could work most effectively after the threat subsides.

Now we know we don’t have to cross the city, country or globe to get to a meeting when it’s available digitally. Flexibility is key in our working lives. Not just regarding when we come into the office, but in the office space itself.

Think carefully about how you want to divide up time working as well as how to divide the physical space you come together in. A lot of work can be done from home, but we can’t underestimate the significance of creating spaces that foster collaboration and innovation. The days of working in lines of desks may have already ended.

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