Covid-19 and changing work culture

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Image description: personalised work desk at an office

The effects of Covid-19 extend far beyond the notorious high temperature and continuous cough; the pandemic has provoked a watershed moment in our society, one which will change it forever. Perhaps one of the most significant changes to our everyday lives is the effect that Covid-19, and the lockdown that it gave rise to, have had on work culture. Is working from home the “new normal” and what does this mean going forward?

For many, the daily commute across London on the tube has turned into a commute downstairs, from the bedroom to the makeshift home office. Since lockdown was announced in the UK, around 60% of the UK’s working population have worked predominantly from home – these people are mainly office workers. Even though shops, pubs, and restaurants have now reopened, the majority of offices have remained closed, or, at least, are only allowing a few essential workers to return. The necessity to socially distance staff and to maintain stringent health and safety rules mean it is simply too challenging to return to pre-Covid-19 conditions at present. Whilst the hospitality industry, for example, has no choice but to reopen their doors if they want to stay afloat, offices face a different predicament.

It is worth noting that we must be wary of having the oversimplified view that, before the pandemic, all office workers were in the office from 9-5 Monday to Friday and that now they all work from home. In fact, over the past few years, there has been a movement towards remote working, with 5% of the UK’s working population working predominantly from home in 2019. Flexibility of working conditions has become increasingly important for employees, and many employers have facilitated this trend, for example, Barclays with their ‘Dynamic Working’ initiative. What Covid-19 has done, therefore, is accelerate this movement by making it obligatory, at least for several months. As a result, businesses have had no choice but to adapt and, in many cases, have seen how well this “new normal” works for them.

“The workplace is no longer static: an innovative, dynamic outlook is essential.”

Covid-19 has advanced the use of technology, both by individuals and by businesses. Even technophobes have had to adjust to using platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Dropbox in order to continue working remotely. Businesses have invested in technology during this period – a step towards the future. These advances highlight, as lockdown has, that co-location of teams is no longer necessary for many roles. A future-facing approach to work culture is fundamental for businesses during this crossroads period, else they risk being left behind. The workplace is no longer static: an innovative, dynamic outlook is essential.

Many businesses are looking at reducing their office space and even closing some of their offices permanently as part of a movement towards remote working. Research suggests that one in ten business premises in London have permanently closed following lockdown. Whilst firms may claim that they have made this decision due to lockdown highlighting that
co-location is no longer necessary in the modern world, is the reality simply that reducing real-estate costs is a measure taken to survive the financial fallout of Covid-19 and is an indicator of the impending global recession? Working from home certainly has its advantages – time and money saved on commuting, flexible working hours, cutting of overheads for the business – but some problems also arise.

Town and city centres have certainly been feeling the fallout from offices closing. Whilst the reopened pubs may have seen busy evenings and weekends as people scramble to get their first “proper pint” in months, the lunchtime trade from office workers has suffered as a result of remote working. From popping out to the pub for a drink during their lunch hour to buying a meal deal in the local shop, office workers typically spend large sums of money in their respective towns and cities during the working week. As the high street and hospitality industry are already suffering, the closure of offices around the country will come as yet another blow.

“the pandemic has provoked a watershed moment in our society”

Another issue is that the new emphasis on technology, despite its advantages, risks leaving some people behind. As we have also seen with school children learning from home, many people struggle due to issues such as poor connectivity or lack of access to technology – 22% of the UK’s population lack basic digital skills, and many low-income families do not have home internet access. There is a risk of an unlevel playing field being created as some households simply cannot afford to create the home working conditions that others can. The counterargument to this, however, is that remote working eliminates some of the locational constraints that the traditional office model inherently produces. This is especially interesting in relation to London; one of the reasons rent and house prices in London are so high is because of the sheer number of top banking and legal roles, for example, within city offices. If people can work for a London-based firm, but do so from their hometown, then they will financially benefit. Hence people are not excluded from “top jobs” because they cannot afford to live in the capital.

Other, more intangible, concerns also persist. For example, many companies pride themselves on having a certain “culture”. Maintaining this when your workforce is spread all over the country is a challenge, to say the least. Both in terms of clients and of staff, the “feel” of a firm is crucial. This also brings us to the idea of a firm being a community for its staff. Whilst many people have enjoyed working from home, there are also a large number who have found it lonely and isolating. Furthermore, working and living in the same space means that work stress is harder to leave behind at the end of the day. The physical act of moving between your place of work and your place of rest is, in of itself, therapeutic. Lockdown has seen stress, anxiety, and depression levels rising in the population. It will become even more important and, arguably even more challenging, for employers to ensure the emotional wellbeing of their staff if they are working remotely.

Perhaps the solution, post-Covid-19, is not, then, a binary choice between the traditional office model and remote working, but rather a medium in which workers and businesses can take advantage of technology to save time and money when work can be completed independently and remotely and in which flexibility is provided to workers; but team and client meetings could still take place in person, allowing for essential human interaction and the preservation of company values.

Whichever path individual businesses take going forward, one thing is certain: work culture will never be the same.

Image credit: Elson, Creative Commons

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