I started writing my last piece about physical environments at the end of last year and while it was ready to publish at the start of 2020, Covid-19 overtook events. It demonstrates how quickly the world can change and that we need to continue innovating and adapting as it does so.

In previous articles, I have discussed how a flexible work environment is an encouragement to a mindset of innovation. What are we to do in a post Covid-19 world where an effective vaccine is still months away and the ability to produce enough for 8 billion of us is 12-24 months away, with a real concern that a second spike in cases could occur or that there is no guarantee of immunity once people have had the virus?

Organisations have increasingly created flexible working spaces where individuals no longer have a designated space. While a work from home culture has grown over the last decade, it has never been the idea to have staff work more than a day or two from home. The approach has always been that we would need to come into the office for the majority of the time. This has allowed firms to cut their office space needs or restrict space requirements as the company grows in size.

There still remains a mindset amongst some senior executives that workers can only really be trusted if someone keeps an eye on them in the office environment. This despite an increasingly rigorous HR process around recruiting individuals and a performance regime that promotes accountability. The old adage of treating people like adults rather than children will illicit the culture you are looking for rather than needing to keep an eye on people.

What now though?

There are various reports that institutions are not going to let more than approximately 30% of staff back into offices over the next 12-18 months. This is before you consider whether people WANT to come back into the office, especially those who are vulnerable themselves or where they have vulnerable family members at home. Who, for instance, is going to want to get on the Northern line at rush hour? It is quite an experience on how to fit the maximum number of people into a tube carriage. No sense of social distancing on a tube,  train or bus – and even if it was possible, I am not sure of the economics on running those systems half empty. Then there is the office itself. 

How are we going to maintain social distancing with meeting rooms, coffee stations, canteens and bathrooms, let alone the cleaning regime that will need to be in place? And how does a company run an office that only holds 30% of its staff?

Beyond this, are we going to meet clients face to face? What about our vendors and relationship management? It looks like attending onsite conferences are pretty dead in the water as well as travel to international offices.

So, the question becomes do we need to let people go back into our offices? There are of course a host of reasons why the answer is ‘Yes’. In Financial Services, regulation is one reason and the need to monitor certain regulated individuals. In pharmaceuticals, I suspect, it is necessary as lab work is a little hard to do from home! Finally, I suspect that our commercial businesses and the economy are not quite ready for a fully digital work from home workforce.

However, a lot of us are finding that we have worked rather effectively from home and there is nothing to say that we could not move to a position of, say, 60-80% home working and 20-40% time spent in the office. With tools like Zoom, MS Teams, Webex, Signal and even WhatsApp/WeChat, it has never been easier to run effective meetings and to ‘see’ our colleagues.

What are the concerns with working from home?

Not everyone can do it, not everyone wants to do it. I would hazard that our homes are primarily set up for our personal lives, rather than business lives. Spending 8-12 hours a day at work, from home, means that our homes need to change. The one thing I am finding troublesome is the difficulty between ‘workspace’ and ‘living space’ as my current setup is in the same room. Not everyone will have the capacity to create both. I am fortunate that my daughter is grown up, but a large portion of the workforce will have young children. How will child care need to adapt to this new world?

There are a lot of people who like the separation of work and personal lives. They may not want to blend the two and then there are concerns over mental health. We are rather social creatures and too much time on our own may not suit many

Long term health and safety concerns with home office set up? We all remember those health and safety courses about not creating trip hazards and the like. Less of a problem now that all the filing cabinets have gone. Then there is your desk set up, right chair, correct posture and desk at the right height. What happens if we get staff to work from home 3-4 days a week? I say this as I look at the trip hazard that is my laptop lead, trailing across the floor….

Technical problems. While that 100Gb WAN at the office provides smooth connectivity and is supported by a capable support team, the same cannot be said for home broadband. I am sure we have all experienced those colleagues who suddenly disappear from a call to re-appear a few mins later when re-connected. It is better than 3-5 years ago, but could still be an issue for long term working from home

What might the future look like?

There is already talk of a migration out of London. Apart from the millennials who want to be close to the social scene in London, I suspect that many will be thinking that a leafy suburb, a home office and a larger garden might be looking very attractive right about now. But beyond a rush towards those home counties, could we see more substantial innovation in the workspace?

For the UK, this could be an opportunity to spread some of the wealth in London out to some of the regions. I heard recently about a role going to someone in Bristol because the other candidate in London was 1) more expensive and 2) there was no need to come into London any more.

I can see the possibility of large companies setting up multiple, small satellite workspaces outside of main city centres. These often have a significantly lower running cost and could be grouped around key residential areas. They could be used for key meetings only with workers spending the majority of their time working from home. 

One small change might be the reduction of reception spaces. They are often seen as a view on how well a company is doing as much as the number of visitors turning up each hour. That space could now be consumed by more useful desk space given the need to distance staff from each other and make better use of high-cost office space.

Public transport will also see a big change. You will see more areas around stations opening up so there are less chokepoints and I can see full automation of the underground, as modern systems like those used on the Jubilee line become standard requiring fewer staff and eventually, driverless trains.

The biggest change, though, will come from the overall digitisation of the economy from Government to Education to Financial Services. Expect to see the likes of Microsoft, Google and Amazon take increasing advantage of their ability to change economies through the use of various technologies from hardware to cloud services. Some of these companies have seen more change requested in the digital space over the last 3 months than the previous 2 years. It does go to show that a crisis is a good motivator for change and innovation.

The extent of the change that we face will be dependent on how long this crisis lasts. If it ends quickly, we will have a tendency to return to how our lives were before. If we see multiple waves of infection and this becomes the new norm, then expect to see mindsets change, innovators take advantage of the situation and a new way of life in the way we live and work.