Covid and the remote working revolution: the end of the office?

Studies show that post-lockdown more employees want to continue working remotely. Joanne Savage reports

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 10th September 2020, 8:00 am
Remote working is likely to remain part of corporate life post-lockdown
Remote working is likely to remain part of corporate life post-lockdown

Sure you might miss chats by the watercooler, shared humour and camaraderie, the whirr of printers, the endless comings and goings and sitting in a proper boardroom rather than using Zoom in the over-sized cupboard that doubles as your pandemic office, but now a considerable number of us don’t have to endure the hell of an extensive commute, or bother to look presentable in a suit.

In fact you can just roll out of bed in your PJs and switch on your laptop and suddenly the working day has begun without even involving a hair brush.

Employers are beginning to appreciate that staff can be just - if not more -productive from home, as office culture bleeds into the domestic sphere.

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The rigid corporate lifestyle that compelled workers to long office hours, often at the expense of family and wellbeing, is undergoing a pandemic-inspired revolution.

According to the HomeWorkingClub, an online portal providing advice and support for home workers and freelancers, one in three people not currently working from home plan to change roles or employers in order to do so, while 90.37 per cent of respondents believe Covid-19 has removed the barriers to remote working.

A report by academics at Cardiff and Southampton universities backs this up, finding that nine in ten of those who worked from home during lockdown want to carry on doing so in some form.

“These figures deliver a conclusive verdict,” says founder of the HomeWorkingClub Ben Taylor. “People want to continue working from home. Governments can fret about the economy all day long, but people will put self-preservation first.”

The backlash against returning to the office is being felt by employers large and small. Even the UK government is struggling to convince its civil servants of the merits of braving public transport and working from the office once more. All of which has major economic implications.

City centres on both sides of the Atlantic watched footfall crumble as a result of the pandemic. The longer-term absence of office workers is adding to the economic pain felt by everyone from restaurant and coffee shop chains to independent stores and charity shops.

“With city centres resembling ghost-towns, it’s clear that governments need to find innovative ways to boost the new economy, rather than pining for the old one,” adds Ben. “The future of work looks different now, so we need to build around that, not try and push back to a version of ‘normal’ that no longer fits.”

Workers’ stay-at-home plans are also supported by an increasing number of companies. Facebook expects 50 per cent of employees to be remote in the coming years, while Twitter offers many staff the choice to work from home for good.

Many other major employers have followed suit, from General Motors’ long-term plan of a “flexible work culture” to BP’s sale of its London office and adoption of the hybrid work style.

Sarah Lewis, from Appreciating Change, an organisational consultancy that helps people through transitions by employing positive strategies, agrees that office culture has been radically altered by the pandemic, but that there are challenges with working remotely that need to be overcome.

The first concern is that the boundaries between work and home life are becoming increasingly blurred, and we need to keep distinctions in place.

She said: “Normally we have lots of signals which tell us if we are in one place or the other. We’re now in our domestic space doing work and family life intrudes. So professional and personal aspects of our lives are merging. In these unprecedented circumstances being a good worker or family member is going to look very different. So we have to change our expectations and our understanding of what success looks like.”

For some the struggle is getting the job done without the support provided by colleagues in situ.

“It can be hard to stay motivated on your own because in an office you get all these micro-lifts, someone might share a joke, there is a sense of camaraderie, of all being dedicated to a task together. You get affirmation, endorsement and support when you are around colleagues.”

As the office and domestic environments merge, the impact on familial and collegiate relationships can change; the danger is we end up working during family time and then being bothered by family commitments when we are trying to focus on the job - leaving us feeling as though we are failing at both.

“During lockdown we know that family tensions have been escalated in many cases,” continues Lewis. “There are more and more of us in a confined space trying to do more things. And then our work relationships suffer too because all those conversations you have at the office help people develop friendships and feel as though they belong. You are bringing so many roles into the same space. So there is more miscommunication and misalignments.

“You need to stop and take stock and recognise that these are changed times and you need to do things differently. Boundaries and balance are so important. It’s very unhealthy for us to be at our computers for eight hours a day so I would say it is important to get up periodically and do different things. Go and water the plants in the green house, do the laundry, take time for cup of tea.

“Respect the end of the working day and at a set time force yourself to put your computer away. Make use of the flexibility home working involves.”

But despite so many swapping corporate offices for the kitchen table or private study, Lewis does not feel it is curtains for the corporate office altogether.

“I don’t think it is the end of office culture but probably there will be something of a shift to remote working for many people. Lockdown has shown us that people can be trusted to sit at home and get on with their work. For some remote working means not missing the commute, having more time to bond with their children and increased productivity levels because you are less interrupted by the noise and hubbub of a communal office.

“But for others it is the complete opposite. They are lonely, they are on their own, they aren’t living with other people, they find it hard to keep their energy levels up and long for the office. Maybe some miss the time to think en route to work or reading War and Peace on the bus or what have you.”

“Yes the commute may have been dull and yes the soul-sapping aspects of office life like fluorescently-lit cubicles and malfunctioning printers and being half bored to death by the saga of Gary from accounts’ struggle to find a girlfriend were tiresome, but for many of the estimated 49 per cent of workers now beavering away at home, they can now see the benefits of office life where we share ideas, socialise and maintain a clearly demarcated work-life balance.

While some of us respond to major changes in our lives with anxiety and trepidation, others will be enthused by the chance to adapt the way they work and the radical overhaul of what once seemed a fixed and interminable routine of ferrying between office and home.

“There is a big difference between change that is forced on us and change that we have freely chosen. Adapting to change is very much dependent on personality,” Lewis continues. “Some feel thrown off course, others thrive on novelty. Those who are risk-averse, who stay in the same job for a long time because they like the familiarity of it and could make more money if they went elsewhere - the change from the office to home working may be less appealing.

“But there is little doubt that for many remote working is the future.”