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Business as usual? Contemplating the post covid-19 workplace

Tuesday, 5 May 2020 ( #973 )
As social distancing shapes economic activity in most parts of the world, many people have had to set up office in their homes for the very first time. Others saw their flexible home/office arrangement change to a full-time home base. Kate Lister from Global Workplace Analytics reports that over half of US employees (75 million workers) hold jobs that allow them to work, at least in part, from home. In a country like The Netherlands, 39% of the working population already worked from home at least part of their work week in 2019. Without delay, employers invested in mobile computers, software licences, security systems, headphones, digital cameras, external drives - and even desks and office chairs, in a hasty attempt to keep productivity up and workers healthy. In an already vastly digitalised world, these transitions prove to be reasonably easy. A lot of employees must have been happy with the idea of working from home, enjoying less commuting time, lower dress expectations, and (more) flexible work times. Many people may have struggled adjusting. Setting up and getting used to new computers, programs and applications can be daunting and sometimes agonisingly frustrating. And these new work arrangements did not occur in isolation! For most of us, the crisis has seriously rattled our work/life balance. Partners who also need to set up shop at home or who are dealing with sudden unemployment, children who are being subjected to home schooling, grandparents who are cut off from their social networks - the pandemic is causing stress and relationship upsets in many households. How can everyone have the space, attention and time they need? And let's not ignore the strains on health, finances and mental wellness. After weeks of getting used to the new day-to-day life, there are signs that we may soon be able to return to the 'before'. Governments are devising ways to revert back to life before the virus. We need to kick-start the economy again and get businesses to forge forwards while avoiding a new upward peak in the flattening COVID-19 curve. But will it be just that? Wind back the restrictions, one at the time: peeling back the layers of COVID-19 restrictions to reveal the old world again, the way it was a few weeks ago? Or was the temporary lockdown so life-changing that it has permanently affected the way we think and feel about our jobs, our offices, our work lives? Has working remotely become the "new normal"? Can employers expect to take back the laptops, software and headphones? Can we be expected to share the often cramped work spaces at the office? Can we still sit together in small meeting rooms, or share the water cooler and the office kitchen with sniffing colleagues? I have no doubt that many of us have had some thoughts about this. If you're at all like me you are looking forward to a day at the office, meeting people face-to-face, the random social interaction and the busy buzz of a team at work. There is something about that time with colleagues at the office that cannot be replaced by virtual meeting software, emails and chat applications!
The physical presence of people within an organisation is important for the productivity of a business. New ideas are most often born from face-to-face interactions. Informal contacts in the work place connect people and cultivate a sense of trust and closeness. Social interaction motivates and rewards. It makes people happier. Social interaction at work stimulates intellectual and emotional development: we engage in other people's lives, we are confronted with a wide range of beliefs and behaviours. We maintain our ability to empathise, to communicate and to flexibly fulfil our personal needs within the complex community. We find opportunities to grow. At the same time, there is no doubt that the flexibility and the autonomy experienced by accomplishing work from home contribute to our happiness. It is undeniable that the better our job fits within our personal and family life, the happier we feel about our job and the more we will take the success of our business to heart. A flexible home/office arrangement seems to improve commitment and engagement. That said, all would hinge on the details: clear agreements about timing, availability, expected work outcomes and accountability are crucial in the success of office/home work schedules. What is the ideal new home/office work scheme? Have you had your first experience working from home? How has that changed your expectations? Are you a manager with new ideas on how working remotely can improve your business? We'd love to hear from you! Perhaps you would also like to have a go at our new (and very spooky) forklift challenge, we're calling it 'Things that lurk in the dark'. If you are looking for some fun, here's the follow up to our previous challenge 'Name that Forklift'.