As we come to the end of 2020 it’s worth pausing and reflecting on our experiences.  The scale of disruption to our lives would have been imaginable 12 months ago.

Let’s think about how we use spaces in our lives. Our bedrooms are empty two thirds of the time. Our living rooms are empty for over 80% of the time. Offices are empty for over 50% of the time.  Is this a sensible way to use space? Is this just a profligate waste of precious finite resources?

Change has been coming for a while

From a business perspective we have seen the emergence of three factors  which have shaken traditional wisdom that the office was the ideal environment for effective and efficient work to take place. First up, we had the introduction of  mobile networks and powerful technology at our fingertips which started to make us more mobile. Secondly, we saw cloud computing and VPNs emerging which meant that we could access all of our central applications, securely and with automatic ported authentication. Finally, there was an explosion of tools such as Zoom, Teams, Slack and Discord that enabled us to collaborate and work together. This meant that we had instantaneous accessibility with our colleagues. Anytime. And anywhere.

The impact of the pandemic

We had the foundations for remote working in place and then the global pandemic hit. If you were working in the knowledge economy and had a decent contingency plan in place, you were able to switch seamlessly to remote working. COVID just sped up the transition to, forgive the expression, to warp speed. It gave us a kick up the backside and we were able to see the future opportunities.

The pandemic, the lockdowns and the changes in the way we worked which were forced on us revealed many startlingly facts.

The benefits of home working

Firstly, many employees liked the flexibility and the autonomy of working from home. There were all sorts of benefits in terms of reduced or the elimination of travel time, spending more time with our children and increased flexibility around how we use our time.  For example caregivers had the chance to find the flexibility they needed which meant putting their work around their lives instead of the other way around.  Recent surveys show that up to 80% of employees want to work from home, or at least some of the time.  What employers need to take note of is that this is a choice. Arrangements that work for some will not be right for others. Businesses need to acknowledge the diversity in their staff.

Increased productivity

Many bosses were surprised that the flexible way of working lead to increases in  productivity.  Home working was a surprising success. Lo and behold, if you trust people they will perform and not simply slum it at home watching daytime TV. Instead those managers who were worried about lost productivity had their misconceptions shattered. In fact the reality was often the complete opposite – remote working lead to more productive work. The research has shown productivity typically increased.

Anytime & Anywhere

We have also discovered it’s not just about working from home. It’s about working from anywhere from Monday through to Friday. If you go into any of the coffee shops in town, you’ll find people working from their laptops whilst sitting with headphones connected to their devices. Work is now something we do instead of somewhere we go. (Another interesting aside and perhaps a topic for another day – this change will have enormous implications for how we design our urban spaces. We need to design for people).

Finances and the Environment

We also notice that working from home can save us a huge amount of money, as well as reduce costs to business. For us, transport isn’t a great issue as we have free parking and cheap public transport but working from home will have saved us some money and perhaps, more importantly, time. It’s that opportunity cost in terms of reduced time that will be particularly attractive.  But we can also eat at home from our kitchens. Work attire has now been blurred with associated financial savings.  We don’t have Guernsey figures yet but the research shows that in the US the typical employee can save on average $11,000 a year by working from home.

And yet there is more! We know offices have huge carbon footprints.  As I mentioned at the outset, we only use this space 50%  50% of the time and we need to challenge our assumptions about how we use this space effectively. As we start these conversations we realise that we have choices – it doesn’t have to be this way.  The added benefit of course is that we can actually address some of our climate change problems by rethinking the way that we work, and where we work.  Back in April Barlcay’s CEO commented that the notion of putting 7000 people in a building, may be a thing of the past.

A hybrid model in the short term

I am not sure about you but before lockdown how were those who worked from home perceived in your office? Was home-working frowned upon.  It was almost considered as an option for those who didn’t take their careers particularly seriously. It was not unusual for Homeworkers to be stigmatized for their choices and decisions. Those myths have now been busted, but making this change will not be easy.  There maybe a few companies that are  ready for 100% remote working, but it is likely that the near future will be dominated by hybrid working models.  Offices will remain a part of our working lives but the relationship is going to be different.  Staff will expect a choice.  Companies will need to be flexible in their offering if they are to retain and recruit quality staff.  This is almost becoming a hygiene factor, new employees will be expecting this. And it’ll be a way to retain staff by giving them this option. It will increase productivity will reduce costs and it will also reduce the environmental impact of our operations.

Culture, as always, will be dining out

But even this hybrid model will be challenging. Trying to maintain a corporate culture, with a remote workforce will be far more difficult as the dynamics of work changes. Maintaining these relationships is not going to be impossible it will just be difficult.  It will  just take us time to acquire new successful ways of working.  Businesses will need to find ways to preserve and create the cultures they need if they are to succeed.

We are about to go on a wonderfully exciting journey.  We are on the cusp  of exploring new lands and new opportunities in the land of work. If ever there was a time for courageous leadership, now is the time.