COVID-19 has induced a radical shift in working practices. As offices around the country have closed, millions of workers in the UK have had to very quickly adapt to working from home. This change has been hard for many, but it has shown that a new relationship to the office and work is possible. The last few years have seen a growth in flexible and home-working arrangements, but the disruption from COVID-19 to normal patterns of working has massively accelerated a cultural shift that had been steadily advancing. This blog post looks at how COVID-19 has accelerated the shift in working practices and norms.
Lockdown and working from home
Lockdown has demonstrated to workers and managers alike that home working is very much possible, and that it is a preferred option for many. While working from home has undoubtedly been challenging for many workers, especially for those with young children, a lack of suitable “office” space, or poor internet, offices have generally found that a whole host of tools are available to enable working to continue quite seamlessly. Zoom has become a new everyday tool for tens of millions around the world, and instant messaging and project management tools have made communication simple and efficient. Furthermore, early impressions of the lockdown suggest that offices have found that they can work very much as before. Being in the same location is not as necessary as once believed. Time will tell, however, as to the impacts this forced change has had on productivity and work output, though some studies have found that home-working increases productivity.
Unexpected benefits to businesses
Many businesses and organisations are finding that significant savings can be made in the renting of premises by switching to more flexible working arrangements long-term. The age of the office has not exactly come to an end, but this shift may signal a dramatic re-think in how office-based organisations approach office-space rental. Many conversations held with friends and family over the last few weeks have reinforced this feeling that something significant has shifted. Many friends and acquaintances working in law firms, insurance offices, NGOs and universities have stated that their organisations are considering longer-term home-working arrangements. These range from permanent home-working for all staff to arrangements such as staggered days in the office for the workforce. These arrangements would have seemed radical only a few months ago. Last week a good friend, a senior editor in a publishing company in the north of England, informed me that their company had already ended the lease on their rented office space, switching permanently to home-working for its employees.
In the past few weeks, well-known large companies such as Morgan Stanley, Barclays and Twitter have also been making similar decisions, with Facebookannouncing in May that it is planning to shift to more remote working arrangements for its employees.
A cultural shift?
A bizarre side-effect of this global pandemic is that the cultural shift towards home and flexible working may have been greatly accelerated. Certainly, the uptake of teleconferencing and office communication tools has been dramatically accelerated, with millions of workers having had to become proficient in their use very quickly. Their usage post-lockdown will likely remain high, as it has become clearer than ever before that an hour-long drive or train-ride to a meeting is often unnecessary. Lockdown has highlighted something very significant; that what tied us to our working practices was as much, and possibly more, cultural than practical.
A question that will be answered in due course is the scale of permanent change in working practices and culture post-lockdown. The extent to which the cultural shift takes root may correspond to the length of lockdown for office workers, as working from home becomes increasingly normalised for millions of people. After a few weeks, waking up, making a mug of tea or coffee, and sitting down to work in your own home loses its novelty, and becomes just part of everyday working life. Offices are among the easiest work-places to close during a pandemic, and may very well be among the last to re-open. Should offices remain closed or mostly-closed for the coming months, the extended period spent home-working for many would enable new forms of working to firmly take root.
There are certainly challenges raised by home-working, for both managers and the office workers themselves. Maintaining productivity and communication presents greater challenges. As does fostering bonding and camaraderie within the workforce. On-boarding new staff members remotely is very different from having a new employee start in the office. The greatest challenges of all are faced by those who struggle with home-working, such as those having to balance childcare with work, or who lack suitable space to turn into a home office. However, the benefits of a greater cultural shift to home-working may yet provide some good news in what has been a difficult few months for the country.
While not the case for all, working from home can improve wellbeing. Being among home comforts can provide a more relaxed environment. Reduced or no commuting means more time for family, relaxation, and exercise. This can certainly positively impact mental and physical wellbeing. However, the potential for improved wellbeing must be considered alongside the potential pitfalls. Many like the division between office and home, preferring to be able to leave the office at the end of the day and keep a mental separation between home and work life. Loneliness and isolation are also concerns for those who may go days without meaningful face-to-face interaction. Certainly, choice will be key, as the freedom offered by new arrangements may benefit those for whom home-working is an appealing option.
The bizarre sight of empty roads was commonplace in the first few weeks of lockdown. As of early May, the UK Government recorded road traffic at 275 sites at between 35% to 45% of usual levels. The improvement to air quality has been noticeable in many cities around the country. There is hope that a change to more home-working may lead to a long-term reduction in the number of cars on the road during commuting hours. This would certainly improve the impact that vehicles have on the environment. The transport sector is the biggest emitter of green-house gasses in the UK, and it is the only sector to have increased its emissions in recent years.
While the lockdown is usually associated with severe economic disruption, there is potential for longer-term benefits to arise from a shift in working practices. New employment opportunities may arise for many different groups. For example, as home working has become more normalised during lockdown, it has been shown that a range of people who have traditionally faced barriers to employment, such as those with mobility issues, can indeed work remotely.
The brain-drain from rural and deprived areas towards big cities and more affluent areas of the country may also be positively impacted. The benefits to rural economies of having more young people staying while working remotely for companies based elsewhere could be significant. A shift to more flexible and home-working could enable this to increasingly become an option for many who previously had little choice but to move.
Time will tell as to the extent of the changes that have been induced by lockdown. A great deal of uncertainly still exists as to how long measures such as social distancing will last, and how long home-working will be in place for office workers. Some degree of home-working arrangements for office workers may continue well into 2021. Some things, however, are quite certain.
Firstly, employers will have a harder time justifying the lack of flexible home-working options. Lockdown has demonstrated that the wheels don’t grind to a halt when employees are not all in the same office. Secondly, the internet has been shown to be, more than ever before, a necessary utility. The economic necessity of fast internet for all, even for rural and remote areas, has been thrown into sharp relief. Finally, travelling to meetings can in future be greatly reduced, now that video conferencing options have been proven effective, and office workers everywhere have become proficient in their use.
COVID-19 has been a tragedy for the country, but the cultural shift accelerated by the switch to home-working has provided some silver linings which can hopefully bring long-term benefits to wellbeing, the environment and the economy.