By Chris Hood, director of consulting – EMEA, Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA)

The current lockdown has forced people to reassess certain assumptions about work and where it is best done. Leaders who assumed before the crisis that home-working was a luxury suited to certain businesses are learning quickly that it can work for their teams too. 

To understand why home-working seems to be working, we should perhaps review what wasn’t working in the office.

Most of today’s workplaces attempt to create balance between focused work and collaboration, yet any workplace satisfaction survey will reveal common concentrative work enemies. Noise, interruptions, poor lighting and uncomfortable temperatures are often cited as the three biggest dissatisfiers in these hybrid spaces. This is despite our efforts to build activity-based environments which promote choice and the ability to work in a setting that addresses individual preferences and needs.

Rather than collaboration and concentrative activities complementing each other, these workstyles often become competing interests in the office. One person’s collaboration is another person’s interruption. As much as employees recognise the value of teamwork, most individuals sense that it is personal work that gets them promoted or attracts a bonus. Getting focused work done well is therefore a very high priority.

So back to the question, why are people starting to feel more positively about working from home? Once the logistics of setting up a viable and comfortable workstation have been addressed, the benefits of home-work become much clearer: the individual is in control of his or her schedule, interruptions, work hours, exercise times, noise, hydration and many other factors that impact personal productivity.

When the stay-at-home order is relaxed and the return to work begins, there is likely to be a stampede back to the office. People will rush to recover the social connections that they lost during the crisis. A few days later, however, those same people may grow frustrated that the personal productivity they enjoyed at home diminishes.

It is not just personal productivity that is a winner in the remote working scenario; teamwork can improve too. Today, we assume that working in the same building aids face-to-face interaction and knowledge sharing, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Busy schedules, business travel, competing priorities, flexible working and the physical distance in the office shatter our illusions of collaboration. In our enforced absence we have learned how to build very effective remote teams (because we had to!) and we are finding that there are a number of real advantages:

·     Virtual meetings are more democratic; someone dialling in to a physical meeting is no longer at a disadvantage.

·     Meetings are well supported by technology (better often than in company meeting rooms) and, when using video, there is a greater chance of all participants being engaged and paying attention.

·     The team members are no longer just comprised of people who happen to live in the same city but can be drawn from anywhere in the world and can participate on a level playing field with everyone else in the team.

·     The sharing of information and screens with today’s collaborative technology far exceeds most meeting rooms in terms of control interoperability, visibility and comfort.

If these improvements in remote working are real and sustainable, what will it mean for business?

·     The new priority may be to design workplaces that support collaboration and customer engagement only. Expectations of going to the office to do heads-down work could evaporate and a new effort to maximise and facilitate productive interaction through improved project, team and social spaces might follow. This footprint would be much smaller than today’s desk-rich environments and comes with a commensurate reduction in occupancy cost. As we re-emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, there is likely to be a strong focus on cost reduction into which this opportunity could play extremely well.

·     By returning large swathes of real estate to landlords, these buildings could be repurposed to meet the growing demand for housing in so many UK cities. The sustainability returns on repurposing space versus building new is self-evident.

·     In some cases, the newly repositioned collaboration space might not even be a permanent commitment but planned and hired on a just-in-time or shared basis through organisations such as Liquidspace.

·     Working is just one option for focused work. We may prefer to think of it as “local working” of which home is one version. Local co-working and public spaces are two other options that offer a much-needed break away from families or housemates. The real benefit to the environment will be if these workspaces are close to home and within walking distance.

·     Corporate footprints will reduce significantly (as they have over the past 15 years through a move to agile solutions); transportation systems will recover from years of excessive demand through less and more diverse use (the rush hour can be redistributed across the entire day); and the planet will get a break from the upward curve of pollution and the degradation of green-field sites.

 ·     Business travel will shrink, as the experience of remote connections continues to improve.

·     Easier access to a global talent pool will unleash new possibilities, eschewing traditional boundaries of workforce permanence and geographical proximity.

This whole outlook is founded on the belief that the resulting system will be more efficient and more effective. The decreased wear and tear on people and on the planet makes this an attractive proposition. The realisation that local working is not only doable, but better, may be the one element of the coronavirus crisis for which the world will be thankful.

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