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Is the workplace as we knew it changed forever?

Let’s be honest, do you really yearn for the daily grind of the commute? Feeling nostalgic for your cubicle? Missing those water cooler chats?

Can’t wait to get back to squeezing your lunch into an over-stuffed fridge?

Maybe not, but then again, not all of us work effectively -or happily – from home, especially if ‘home’ is a shared space with lots of distractions. For many, the loss of this form of workplace will be hard.

Since lockdown, half of those of us who work have been working from home. Thanks to technology, we have mostly been able to carry on with business as usual. This has made many business leaders appreciate the benefits of flexible working and ask, “Do we really need all of that expensive office real estate?”

Could the office really be a thing of the past? We examine the current thinking, the benefits and drawbacks of the various workplace options.

In many sectors, including insurance and financial services, there has been a seamless shift to homeworking. Many of our clients are reporting that, surprisingly, their productivity has been unaffected with many reporting an increase since lockdown started!

Unsurprisingly, this has led to a debate on where we will be working post-lockdown. We canvassed  our clients and the feedback was pretty mixed. One client has already required their teams to return fully to the office whilst another is not planning to reopen their offices until 2021. In a recent risk survey, a client found that 76% of staff are not ready to return to the office environment.

Naturally, companies are keen to make savings – particularly if a downturn is inevitable. Not having to pay exorbitant commercial rents might seem an attractive boost to the bottom line. There already was a trend in recent years towards flexible working, including increased working from home. Many expect business will now fully embrace this way of working as part of the “new normal”.

Some commentators suggest that the brick and mortar office will remain but in pared-down, ‘hub’ form. Instead of accommodating an entire workforce, senior members of staff will be permanently based in an office with most staff coming in for 2-3 days a week.

Overall, academic studies show that, in the main, people who work from home are more productive and happier. Flexible working allows us to prioritise and capitalise on the times when we are more productive, rather than trying to fit our productivity clock around the rigid “9 to 5”.

But one size never fits all and whilst one person may perform better when working from home, another might see their output suffer. Worryingly, very recent studies are reporting the productivity of women can suffer in lockdown largely as they shoulder the majority of the responsibility for domestic chores and helping their children home educate. Indeed, one close colleague described her transition from full-time executive to a new normal of “equal parts manager, teacher, PE coach, school counsellor, Mary Berry and Filch the caretaker”.

Pre-lockdown, people working fully or part-time from home were often overlooked and not promoted as quickly as full-time colleagues. In addition, if the UK does enter a recession and redundancies are likely, workers may feel they should be seen and will want to ensure they are as visible as possible.

The creative energy of a workplace can often be the catalyst for our own productivity. Newer colleagues can learn from more experienced colleagues. Whether this can be done as effectively across Zoom is debatable.

Also, we are a naturally gregarious species. The increase in mental health issues during lockdown can only partly be explained by a natural fear of the potentially deadly virus – many of us were also hit by the isolation of working from home.

Some people reported being more dependent on their managers when working from home  or developing a slight paranoia: naturally, we all want to be productive but many of us get reassurance from being seen to be productive.

We are seeing questions around workplace impacting particularly upon recruitment. Even before the lockdown, we were increasingly finding that talented candidates were more motivated by opportunities with employers who demonstrate commitment to creating a nurturing and working environment, supporting their staff to find a stronger work-life balance. The opportunity for flexible working and working from home is an important factor for many candidates. This is likely to become an even stronger criteria going forward.

Younger recruits particularly are more mindful of the need to nurture strong mental health in the workplace and the environmental impact of business. Both of these concerns benefit from a less rigid, less traditional working framework.

We predict that whilst the workplace won’t ever return 100% to the pre-Covid19 picture, neither will we see a comprehensive embracing of working from home. Instead, there will be a ‘third way’, somewhere on the spectrum between the two. Where exactly it will land is currently anyone’s guess but we will be keeping a firm eye out for it when it eventually does.

Watch this (work)space!

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