Crisis 9: Eldorado remains remote

If you’d asked me three weeks ago about the prospect of reducing office space and increasing homeworking, I would probably have been quite enthusiastic. This week, the monotony and isolation are kicking in. The physical toll of screens and long periods of sitting, the temptation to schedule back to back calls, the lack of a dividing line between work and home: all are proving bigger problems than anticipated. We haven’t been forced into unnecessary office working by evil capitalists; they exist for a reason. I may feel differently next week: we don’t yet know. It is also true that new working practices could mitigate some of the physical effects.

Of course, there are upsides. The technology has worked well. As has been said before: if this had happened in the 1990s, we’d have been in a very different place. Thank you, technology teams the world over: some of you were the last ones out of the office before shut down. And, as necessity is the mother of adoption, having no choice has pushed me to become familiar with a range of platforms. Some of that will stick.

I am also relieved to recover three hours of my day from commuting on some of the most unreliable and unpleasant transport systems in the country. That is a gift.

And here is where the doubts begin. I can successfully do large parts of my work from home. I have that sort of job and that sort of home. There is space to work quietly, a partner to share the load and a garden to take breaks in. Not everybody has that. Not everyone has kept their job.

We all differ, but I suspect that working from home is most likely to suit affluent, older, partnered knowledge workers. These are also the people most likely to have traded a longer commute for a bigger house. And less likely to hang around for drinks after work. So they are going to be feeling the upsides of remote working.

They are also often the ones making future decisions about office space and working practices. So my plea is this: your (our) experience of lockdown is not likely to be universal. Our task when planning for the recovery is to ensure that we have created a sustainable working environment for all our people.

The other way in which this current experience is not a good guide to more permanent changes is that, by and large, we knew each other well before going into lockdown. It is harder to establish friendships and the bonds of trust through remote working. There is a need for socialising. There is a need for getting to know people better than you can through a screen. There is value in serendipity and chance encounters; in collective ceremonies and rituals. It is hard to lead without feedback.

My hunch is that there will be more remote working but not universal or permanent remote working. Those who can will spend more days a week at home or in a library, cafe or other shared space. But people will still gather. Indeed, you could make this an explicit strategy – an event-based rather than office-based approach to the social side of work. As flexibility and distance increase, I can see a rise in the number of non-negotiable gatherings – team days, all-hands meetings, office socials. Wise managers would plan these with increasing care and attention to get maximum social bang for minimum real estate buck. It could work well.

We will still need space to gather in; less of it maybe, but I wouldn’t be selling the whole office yet. Day delegate rates at conference centres are not cheap; neither is properly equipping homes for work. Maybe timeshare offices will come into vogue.

So:

  • Don’t draw conclusions yet; it is too soon to know what it is really like.
  • Plan your working environment to suit a wide range of employees, not just the most senior employees.
  • Enquire about the experience of others – yours may not be universal.
  • If there is more remote working, consider how you bring people together to forge bonds of trust and camaraderie through carefully planned events.
  • Increase the tempo and quality of the cascade of information to bridge the gap.

The full crisis collection.

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