The office – but not as you know it

Since COVID-19 struck, working from home and virtual meetings are no longer a novelty. But how are we coping with this new world – and has everything changed for good? What does the future hold for companies and their employees?

Even before this year’s global pandemic, the world of work was changing. But the coronavirus has transformed it faster and more completely than anyone could have predicted.

Since most countries in the world were in partial or full lockdown, many offices and factories were empty, and international travel was more or less out of the question. The usual rules simply couldn’t apply. And so, as if in a particularly grim Grimm’s fairytale, our old world was replaced by a new and unfamiliar one.

The question now is, where do we go from here? Edwina Fitzmaurice, EY Consulting Global Markets, Business Development, Sector and Solutions Leader, who is spearheading EY’s COVID-19 Taskforce globally, says going back to the old ways is not an option.

“We’re moving to a radically new way of thinking, living and working,” says Fitzmaurice. “We’re re-writing the rules of how to live.”

Rather than working in the new normal, Fitzmaurice talks about working in the “new abnormal.”

Perhaps the biggest change has been the switch to working from home. Global Workplace Analytics (GWA), a U.S. research-based consulting firm dedicated to preparing employers for the future of work, estimates that 25%-30% of the global workforce will be working at home on a multiple-days-a-week basis by the end of 2021.

Home office pros and cons

“The change in how and where people work will have far-reaching implications for the built environment, sustainability, labor markets, transportation infrastructure, regional planning, tax and labor laws, and more,” says Kate Lister, the company’s president. “It’s not going to be work as we knew it.”

It makes sense for businesses to encourage continued working from home. On average, employers who allow employees to work from home part-time save about $11,000 per year for each employee working remotely.

Many of managers’ reservations about remote working – the fear that workers will take advantage of the opportunity to slack off, for example – will have been assuaged during the lockdown period. And many more employees have had the chance to sample for themselves the benefits – and the disadvantages – of working from home.

Oscar Thompson is a credit analyst working for an Australian bank in Taiwan. He previously worked in the office but has recently been working from home.

“In terms of being productive, for me the office is a more conducive environment,” Thompson says. “We use an internal communications system, and when working from home, the system is slower. Working remotely also requires more discipline, and there is no work/home life boundary. On the plus side, it’s more flexible – and you can have a nap in the afternoon.”

For Neha Gupta, a child and adolescent psychotherapist working at Family Tree and The Art of Sport in New Delhi, India, working from home brings particular challenges.

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Estimated percentage of the global workforce working multiple days a week at home by the end of 2021

“I find myself being more productive and getting things done faster, especially as there is no travel time,” says Gupta. “But the efficacy of online sessions, to me, seems considerably lower than in personal consultations. The screen creates not only physical distance between the client and me but also increases resistance in the client, thereby impacting the therapeutic relationship.”

But without dependable access to the internet, communication can be frustrating. “Internet in India is not the best everywhere,” says Gupta. “Therefore, the efficiency of the session rests hugely on the internet speed and connectivity on that particular day.”

The COVID-19 outbreak was an unprecedented event that forced workplaces to ramp up digitalization efforts. “We had to wholly and quickly adapt everything – how we work, learn and recruit new colleagues – to a virtual setting,” says Afra Morris, a digital media manager at DHL, which has shifted all its recruiting to virtual modes; 80% of classroom training to creating learning journeys in different formats; and in-person meetings to video and audio communication - via Teams and Zoom. “By removing the mental barrier of office-centric collaboration and socializing,” Morris explains, “we've been able to develop a global working experience and grow closer as a team.”

Work-life balance – and boundaries

As Thompson found, it can be a challenge for employees to separate their work and home lives when working remotely. And then there’s the social aspect. Though few regret not spending hours in their cars or on crowded, potentially virus-infected buses and trains, many managers and employees miss the interaction of office life.

For all these reasons, the likelihood is that, in future, most people will combine working from home with working in the office.

Fitzmaurice predicts that rotas of various kinds will be implemented in the office environment in order to facilitate social distancing. Moreover, she believes measures such as mask-wearing, temperature checks, cafeterias either not opening or opening but serving only pre-packaged foods, and regular sanitizing of buildings are likely to be with us for a long time.

Remaining office areas will have to be expanded to accommodate social distancing, with employers needing to expand working areas to allow for more space between workers, partitions and directing the flow of footfall, explains CNN. They cite former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who, appearing on the TV program “Face the Nation,” stated: “My guess is we’ll have more demand for office space. Not less, because people will want social distancing.”

Internet interactions

Sabine Müller, CEO, DHL Consulting, sailed through her learning curve near the beginning of the lockdown by identifying four lessons for virtual office management: communication, vision, digital tools and staying healthy and social.

In addition, accidental benefits of lockdown – such as the reduction in carbon emissions and improvement in air quality, or the partial “re-wilding” of some cities – have underscored the importance of industry becoming environmentally sustainable in the long term.

WALK WITH ME: Follow DHL Consulting CEO Sabine Mueller on an agile office tour.

All in all, it seems the pandemic has fundamentally changed attitudes. Indeed, Fitzmaurice sees the transformation in thinking as being comparable to the Industrial Revolution or the Enlightenment.

“In many ways, COVID-19 is being seen as a wake-up call,” she says. “We’ve all seen how fragile we are as a species, and ESG [Environment and Social Governance] is becoming much more important, and boards are taking it very seriously. There is a very live conversation around that, and leaders realize they are being watched and that the values they espouse affect their brands.” — Cathy Dillon

Published: October 2020

Image: Danae Diaz for Delivered