At the beginning of the lockdown, working from home was seen as a blessing.
It meant increased family time, a pause on commuting (which, if it isn’t stressful, is pricey), more downtime at home, and far less money spent on work attire (read: sitting around in pyjamas all day). Since the onslaught of the pandemic, there has been a 132% increase in the number of employees that prefer to work from home rather than the office.
Fast-forward to the new year, we have been remote working for what seems like forever. Family time is in abundance as the kids (for many of us) are STILL not at school. You and your partner are sharing office space, or in a lot of cases: the kitchen table. And, you have even begun to miss the mundane office chit chat and small talk. That being said, in the pre-pandemic context remote work was not synchronous with social isolation measures and in the current climate, any form of social interaction is somewhat of a treat.
Suppose remote working was to become the new norm, what would it look like post-pandemic? Could we finally be saying farewell to monotonous commutes to densely stacked buildings hidden deep within the metropole? Would we want to? What is going to happen to the office scene? Will it change entirely?
This article will take a closer look at each of these questions.
Working from home
According to a Global Work-from-Home Experience Survey, published in May 2020: 77% of employees, given the choice, would opt for working remotely once the world opens back up again. The main reasons for this are precaution and convenience: both of which are undoubtedly influenced by the coronavirus pandemic. By working from home employees minimize their exposure to the virus, be it from their commute or their time spent in the office. Whatsmore, taking the commute and time/money spent being office-ready out of the equation is no doubt more convenient for the majority of employees.
But. What did the figures look like before the lockdown measure drastically changed our work and home environments?
Remote working pre-pandemic
In 2019, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the UK, reported that less than 30 percent of the UK workforce worked remotely — around 8.7 million people. Whilst, in the U.S only 3.4 percent or 4.7 million of the total population reported working from home (in 2019). Although the figure for the U.S may seem low, over recent years the amount of people working remotely has increased substantially: 44 percent in the last 5 years and 91 percent over the previous 10 years.
Nevertheless, these figures do not account for the number of employees who would have liked to work from home. The incentives to work from home in the pre-pandemic era included: economic reasons (to save money); freedom of location; and a desire to spend more time with family and loved ones.
However, due to the difference in climate pre-pandemic, many companies simply didn’t allow for their workforce to work remotely. The key reasons for this
- Differences in the industrial structure: WFH suits employment in knowledge, and ICT-intensive industries more so than industries such as hospitality.
- The distribution of employment by firm size: Larger companies are typically more likely to adopt remote work than smaller ones.
- Digital skills: Workers with strong digital skills are arguably better-positioned to work independently from their own homes.
But now, as a result of lockdown measures, every single employee that can work from home is doing so. As the pandemic took control and lockdown measures ensued employers had no choice but to ensure that “business as usual” continued, albeit, outside of the office.
Remote working during the pandemic
A report published by Insight UK in June 2019, demonstrates that when attempting to make the shift to WFH technology is both the solution and the problem for businesses. According to the report many of the businesses that attempted to build a remote workforce pre-pandemic encountered a multitude of over-complicated devices and software. According to the report:
“UK workers complained of unintuitive or overly restrictive technology systems; felt that they were not receiving adequate training (resulting in many hours being wasted); experienced productivity challenges; felt disengaged, frustrated and that they were being subjected to information overload.”
Perhaps, one positive that can be drawn from the current state of affairs is that it has forced businesses to reevaluate their approach to remote working. In order to keep business running as usual businesses of all sizes have researched the best tools out there for their individual needs. They have invested in workflow optimization software, automated their processes, and integrated SOP software. Ultimately, businesses have been exposed to a whole new world of technology adoption and processes.
It is worth noting whilst the recent increase in remote working can be seen as a positive, there is a difference between pandemic WFH and the idealized pre-pandemic model. Many organizations had to rush to not only enable their teams to work from home but also to communicate in a completely remote fashion.
This is why the usage of tools like Zoom, a video conferencing app, shot up drastically as an outcome of the pandemic. Over the course of March 2020, Zoom was seeing 200 million daily meeting participants. The following month, this number had risen to 300 million. This compares to 10 million in December 2019.
What is the future of the office?
This is where the title of this post comes in “Working from Home or Home(ing) from Work?”
Employees, in general, will emerge from this pandemic expecting the same level of technology at home as they once did at work. With all of these new systems in place, an important question arises: will we need the office post-pandemic?
The short answer is most probably a no. The pandemic has taken the work from home regime to another level, greatly improving opportunities to productively collaborate, think, create, and connect. And, after months of remote working, it is unlikely that any employee will choose to return to the office out of necessity.
However, many of these employees would choose to get out of the house to work. It is this very incentive that drove thousands of remote workers (pre-pandemic) to co-working spaces like Impact Hub and WeWork (both of which have seen a decline in memberships during the pandemic). A designated working environment outside of one’s home is also likely to be what once drove laptop clad workers to their favorite cafes or comfortable libraries.
Perhaps this is a better answer: no, we don’t need the traditional office space but we do need something.
That something should be tailored to meet each business’ individual wants and needs. There are however a few fundamentals these new workspaces need to consider, such as having a greater focus on flexibility, well-being, and collective collaboration. As employees have more options for where to work, the office will need to take into consideration its competitors and what they have to offer.
The new office would ideally prioritize the two main reasons employees are now choosing to WFH: precaution and convenience. With these two factors in mind, the office could not only be a place of work, but it could also provide a sense of security, like that of one’s own home; and the comfort and convenience (and quality coffee) of a cozy café.
With the employee's wants and needs covered, what about businesses in general?
This poses a complex challenge: how to provide the right kind of office, when and where it’s needed, in a cost-effective manner. Well for one, businesses could say goodbye to large physical workspaces: By giving the option to work from home, or not, office spaces will rarely (if ever) be filled with every single employee at the same time. By downsizing on office space, costs will be dramatically diminished.
Businesses could also opt to pay for memberships for their employees at co-working spaces in their local area. This would also benefit employees as it would enable them to optimize their way of working and also avoid unnecessary traffic and commuting.
So, there we have it, WFH is well and truly upon us. What this means for the future of our offices is still unclear. One thing is for certain, the office space as we once knew it will never be the same again. And with a software stack that replicates the office in its entirety (apart from the watercooler, perhaps), there may be no need for us to ever step foot inside an office again.