For many of us, it may be hard to even remember what the world of work was like before the pandemic. Collaborative in-person meetings, crowded commutes, and lunchtime dashes to Pret-a-Manger have long been replaced by pyjama-laden zoom calls, irregular working hours, and make-shift bedroom offices. And due to the unpredictable nature of Covid-19, it's unlikely this reality will be changing anytime soon.
However, as many of us adjust to this period of the 'new normal', businesses are forced to set their sights on what the world of work will look like in a post-covid world. Since working from home is proving to be an increasingly attractive option, with research from Eskenzi suggesting that 91% of the UK's office workers would like to work from home at least some of the time, it's clear that forms of remote working will stay in place long after the virus is finally eradicated.
So, as business owners grapple with what the Harvard Business Review has described as "the most significant social experiment of the future of work in action", new creative solutions aimed at adjusting to this changing landscape are being forced into the forefront of our working lives. So, in this article, we'll be exploring why it looks like we'll be working from home for the long haul, and what this post-covid work-from-home world will really look like, both within the workforce and in the broader context of society. But first of all, let's take a closer look at this new reality of remote working.
On the 23rd of March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the country was going into an official lockdown. Overnight, all non-essential shops were forced to temporarily close their shutters; all non-essential travel was banned; and the people of the UK were advised to work from home, 'if they could'. Just like that, 46.6% of the labour force (who were able to safely conduct their work from home) switched to this new form of remote working.
However, amongst those newly working from home, stark discrepancies were highlighted between those who could easily adjust to remote work, and those who faced more significant difficulties. Issues ranged from unreliable Wi-Fi, limited space, and childcare responsibilities; all of which proved to disproportionately affect certain subsects of the workforce more than others. Both in Europe and across the pond, this resulted in cries that this new mode of working didn't cater to all levels of society equally
However, despite the initial backlash, most UK workers have appeared to come to terms with this shift. Compared to our European neighbours, many more of us are opting to continue working remotely, even when we were faced with the option to return to our workplaces on 1 August. So, how come such large amounts of the population are keen on ditching the office to continue WFH? Here are some of the major reasons why.
One of the biggest - and most obvious - reasons why orders to return to work are faced with heavy public scepticism is because of anxieties over the coronavirus, which is still currently circulating around the UK. As a poll by the Resolution Foundation has found, fewer than half of UK employees are confident their workplaces have been made "covid-secure". This contradicts assurances from the health security Matt Hancock, who claimed that the "vast majority" of workplaces were adequately protected from the coronavirus. These fears stem from a lack of faith that workspaces will be carrying out proper social distancing or covid-secure risk assessments. Unsurprisingly, this lack of trust is felt more among populations who are at risk.
However, while fears of contracting covid in our places of work are not to be underestimated, it's being suggested that workers are even less comfortable with the prospect of using public transport every day. One poll released by the consultancy firm Theta Financial Reporting concluded that 70% of Londoners feel uneasy about the thought of commuting to work every day in the current climate, compounding the desire to work from home. However, due to the fact that this concern is purely centred around the current pandemic, is it unlikely this sentiment will continue to shape attitudes further into the future.
More family time
According to research by Fluent Pulse, other than fears regarding catching and spreading the coronavirus, spending more time with family is the most significant incentive to work remotely. Out of all the women surveyed, 36% cited being able to spend more time with loved ones as the most beneficial aspect of working from home, compared to 30% of men. While there's no doubt that moving offices into front-rooms and juggling filial and corporate responsibilities has contributed to a lot of hair-tearing moments for many workers across the country, being able to work from the comfort of our own homes does drastically increase the amount of quality time we are able to spend with family and loved ones.
Due to a shift in values that this pandemic has purportedly caused, an increasing amount of the workforce seems to be prioritising the importance of family time over other concerns. This is a trend that is very unlikely to change any time soon - so will therefore likely contribute to either more flexible working hours in the future, or more time spent working from home when possible.
It's hardly surprising that another popular reason why people are opting to work from home more is because of the cut down on their daily commute. Unless you count the walk from your bedroom to your dining room, if you work remotely, the need for commuting has basically become obsolete. In addition to this soothing many health and safety concerns regarding the spread of the virus, it also saves individuals a lot of time that can be spent being productive. Or (more realistically), spending an extra half hour in bed.
Another reason why nine out of ten UK workers are open to working from home more is because of the increased flexibility it gives their schedule. According to Fluent Pulse, an average of 17% of those interviewed cited a more flexible schedule as the most beneficial aspect of remote working, with the figure rising to 25% amongst the baby boomer generation. Having more control over your work schedule gives you the independence to work at your own pace, as well as to your own strengths and advantages. This is essential in carving out a healthy work-to-life balance, and it has also been shown to potentially increase levels of productivity. For these reasons, it is likely that more flexible, personalised schedules will make working from home a more popular option for years to come.
Saves workers money
With Covid-19 lurching the UK into what some are calling the worst recession since WW2, it's unsurprising that many of us are looking for ways to keep our wallets closed. Luckily, one unforeseen consequence of working from home instead of commuting into the office is all the money that you can save. Instead of forking out on expenses like commuting, coffees and lunches, UK employees are able to save this money, or put it towards other areas of their lives. And we're not talking about small change here. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently bought out figures that indicate the average UK worker is about £495 a month better off working from home. With this amount of money likely to ease financial burdens for employees right across the nation, if money could talk, it would probably tell people to stay at home.
Saves employers money
Underutilised office space has indeed been an enormous financial burden for many business owners across the UK ( especially in large metropolitan areas like London). Because of this, in the long term, remote working appears to financially benefit employers just as much as their employees. Savings on things like rent and utilities, cleaning services, taxes, and staff food and drink are just some of the ways companies have been able to shave down their expenses to save for the future.
So, now we've covered the main reasons why working from home doesn't look like a trend that will be dying out any time soon, it's time to explore what impact this will have on the future of work - as well as on wider society.
More co-working and meet-up spaces
Many companies who don't see the point in renting out financially draining office blocks are looking at setting up smaller, satellite offices to accommodate this changing face of work. The aim of these smaller offices, or 'hubs', are to provide workers with a space to collaborate or work when it's not viable to do so at home. They can be set up in various locations, but they're aiming to be built within walking or cycling distance from employees' homes. As well as being convenient to employees, this may potentially help to breathe fresh life into local high-streets and shopping centres that have been badly impacted by the pandemic.
As a recent Onecom survey illustrates, 85% of London businesses and 77% of UK businesses agree that more casual workspaces designed to facilitate collaborative working and meetings will bring more tremendous advantages to their business, in opposition to full-time staffed offices. The concept has even received backing from the Welsh Government, who are looking to develop a series of 'community-based working hubs' as a way to drive regeneration and economic activity back to local communities. Even though these co-working facilities aren't able to be set up any time soon due to current social distancing regulations, they do project an image of what the future of work in the UK may look like.
Increased hybrid working
Hybrid working simply refers to the concept of mixing office-based work with working from home or another location. Following on from the workplace hub concept, both employers and employees look to be in agreement that greater flexibility should be brought to the future of work. With 3 out of 4 employees opting for a more flexible mix of remote and office-based working, and 8 out of 10 C-level executives believing businesses will benefit from a more hybrid model, it looks like these options will remain in place even after the coronavirus dies down. Adapting to this new flexible model is likely to give workers a greater sense of autonomy while allowing them to be in charge of their own schedule, and even potentially increasing rates of productivity. It's appealing because it aims to balance a workplace structure with flexible personal schedules, and allows employees to enjoy their independence while also opening up opportunities to socialise.
Also, as employers are forced to straddle between the remote working model of the present and a more collaborative future, this hybrid working idea allows them to bridge this gap between the two ends of the spectrum - to become better prepared for the future.
A poorer work to life balance
However, even though the benefits of this model are broad in scope, there have also been concerns that the lack of boundaries could lead to an even blurrier distinction between work and home. With working from home data already proving that employees are logging an extra two hours a day on average, as well as using the internet more from midnight to 3 am since the start of Covid-19, it's clear that workers are finding it harder to switch off outside of the office. Therefore, it's essential to implement strategies to make sure employees who adhere to this new hybrid model are able to still achieve a healthy work to life balance. If not, the wellbeing of workers is put at risk, and they face a much higher chance of becoming burnt out.
Increased employee-employer trust
One unexpected outcome that has derived from this new covid-friendly mode of working is an increased level of trust between employers and employees. Due to the fact that bosses are no longer able to hover over the shoulders of workers to keep tabs on their productivity, they are forced to trust that their team are managing their workload independently, without any in-person guidance or support. Also, with a less hands-on approach to leadership, employees also have to trust the directions of their employers. In a survey into the changing face of work, 47% of employees questioned believed that this increased level of trust will help to soften established business hierarchies, with two-thirds expressing they think there will be a better understanding of the human factor in the workplace.
New styles of leadership
Due to the seismic shift that has occurred within the world of work since March of 2020, business leaders have been put under increasing amounts of pressure to guide their team, and their company, through these trying times. From logistical challenges, to issues with team morale, and the management of company finances, the unexpected nature of Covid-19 has forced business leaders to make a series of high-pressure decisions under very tight time frames. However, while navigating this current climate may seem hard, directing the business into an uncertain post-covid future may demand even stronger styles of leadership.
Business leaders are being forced to focus on ways to communicate efficiently with staff, while simultaneously maintaining inclusion across diverse teams and geographies, ensuring employees are still being productive while working from home. And with forms of remote working looking to remain in place indefinitely, business leaders are tasked with creating a stronger and more engaged workplace culture that is equipped to deal with the future of this new remote (or hybrid) working landscape.
While the phrase' work from home' might make you think of repeatedly pressing the snooze alarm or mastering the art of browsing Instagram while taking part in zoom meetings, research is suggesting that people actually may be just as productive while working remotely, if not more. In a study dating back to 2013, a Stanford researcher recorded the productivity levels of a Chinese company who started to work from home four days a week. Surprisingly, across the nine months, productivity was seen to grow by 13%, and this phenomenon is also appearing to hold true in the current WFH climate.
Whether it's due to more flexible and personalised schedules, a greater ability to focus outside of the office, or a range of other different factors, workplace productivity has indeed been on the up since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to a California-based technology company, worker productivity has actually increased by 47% since the company was advised to work from home, with the average worker being recorded to work for longer hours and increasing their amount of telephone calls by 230%. Even though it's hard to say whether this trend will stay in place after higher percentages of the workforce return to the office, it's quite clear that new, flexible schedules and increased trust between employees and employers have the potential to dramatically increase productivity in the workplace.
A dent to high-street businesses
While, in many cases, this new WFH landscape is bringing many benefits to businesses who have the luxury of making their operations remote, for high street businesses in the retail or service industry, the desertion of office spaces is painting a very different picture. Since offices constitute up to half of the commercial floorspace in some city centres, a significant amount of the footfall that nearby businesses rely on comes from the office jobs that these spaces bring in. From cafes to retail shops, many of these businesses relied on the revenue that these high-paid office jobs were bringing into the centre. Even though before the first lockdown, the lowest amount of high street vacancies were recorded in cities with more skilled office jobs, since the wide-spread shift to working from home, these appear to be the areas that are suffering the most.
This decline has been no more evident than in the city of Liverpool, where office jobs are fairly central to the city's economy. Since the end of March, the footfall in the city centre fell as low as 16%, severely affecting the revenue of a range of nearby businesses, and causing some to go into permanent closure. Since remote forms of work are expected to remain in place long after the virus dies down, it's imperative that new attractions or initiatives like co-working satellite offices, or 'hubs' are brought to the city centres and high streets that are affected by this lack of footfall. If not, many fear that this could place the final nail in the coffin to the UK's already struggling high streets.
A flight from urban centres
Another consequence of fewer people using conventional office space is that companies are waking up to the fact that they are no longer bound to the high rents of city centres. Since most employees have made the switch to remote work anyway, renting out a full office space is appearing to be an unnecessary expense for many businesses that are able to handle large portions of their operations remotely. Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in London, specifically in the more built-up areas that are home to the capital's financial and business districts, such as the City of London and Canary Warf, where an increasing amount of companies are downsizing or giving up their office spaces altogether in the wake of Covid-19.
In addition, employees of city-based businesses are also more likely to consider moving out of urban areas if workplace obligations no longer anchor them. Since the price of rent in cities like London is extraordinarily higher than surrounding areas in the UK, more and more city-dwellers are considering making a move to more rural destinations. According to data collected by YouGov, a whopping 28-30% of London based workers admit they would consider moving to other areas of the UK or abroad if working from home became a permanent option. While there's no doubt that offices will still serve important purposes in the future of the world of work, companies and employees are increasingly realising they don't need to rely on urban centres to achieve success. And with the number of people leaving cities only expected to grow in coming years, if urban centres don't react to this exodus adequately, they could be faced with damaging economic repercussions.
Even though it's true that remote and hybrid forms of work are only estimated to increase in forthcoming years, this definitely doesn't mean that physical workspaces will be relegated to the past. In-person workspaces provide staff with vital opportunities to collaborate, share ideas, and socialise - and even though many people are starting to opt for more flexible working models, offices provide teams with many benefits that just can't be replicated remotely.
Rather than a clean switch to working from home, the future of work is likely to look more flexible, and be adaptable to the specific needs of the business or its employees. Instead of measuring productivity by the number of hours spent sitting at a desk, it's likely to be based in terms of output, which is likely to open up new insights into what really motivates us. More flexible hybrid models also open up opportunities for us to spend more time with family or unwinding. Although, to make sure this style of work is effective in the long-term, it's vital for business leaders and employees to strike up a healthy balance between work and life, so workers can create healthy distinctions and switch off as soon as they clock out.