Over the last few months, you will no doubt have read countless articles prophesising the demise of the office as we know it. While everyone has different visions of how our work lives will evolve, the general consensus is that the office will not return to ‘normal’ and working from home will become more common (see our previous blog post on this topic). Here at DASH, we’ve been thinking about some of the disadvantages of working from home, both from the perspective of the employer and the employee.
Environment and Comfort
What are the long term physical effects of being hunched over a kitchen table for 10 hours a day? Or typing on a laptop whilst sat in bed? Under the UK Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers are required to assess risks and have arrangements in place to protect employees’ health and safety. This protection includes desk-based jobs and has driven the widespread adoption of ergonomic office equipment. With staff now working from home long-term, many employers see that they have a duty of care to provide office equipment for the home. With greater numbers likely working from home in the future, home-office set-ups will become increasingly prevalent. The sad reality is, especially in cities where space is at a premium, many employees simply do not have space for office equipment.
Stress and “Always-on” Culture
COVID-19 has accelerated many long-term trends. Before the pandemic, digital devices had become steadily more integrated into daily life. This integration facilitated an ‘always-on’ work culture, a term which describes the merging of work and personal life. Even in the pre-lockdown world of 2017, this growing lack of a clear division between work and home life was contributing to already-high stress levels here in the UK, with over 50% of us admitting to taking calls and checking emails outside of working hours (To combat this culture, there was a growing trend encouraging employees to switch off devices outside of office hours. Most notably in France, as of 2017, employees now have the legal right to avoid checking emails out of hours (Guardian). The office was the last physical barrier that separated work and personal life. Many people that we have interviewed over the last month have stated they now find it difficult to distinguish weekdays and weekends. This further blurring of our work and personal lives is undoubtedly contributing to COVID-related stress and anxiety.
Corporate Identity and Sense of Self
As we alluded to in our last article, over the past 4 weeks, the DASH team have been interviewing our network and keeping our ears to the ground to understand how businesses have been adapting around COVID-19. As part of this exercise, we spoke to someone who works for a large multi-national brand here in the UK. They told us that they felt as though, after seven years of building a career with their employer, they had lost their professional identity almost overnight and that they no longer felt as though they worked for the same company. It was as if their role and the company itself had become generalised. As elegantly described in this NY Times article, the office is a place where professional identities are forged. Without a central location, businesses will almost certainly lose a large part of their identity.
Culture, Camaraderie and Socialising
What does an eroded corporate identity mean for company culture? Culture is a result of the collective actions of employees within a business. It’s something that evolves over time, it’s not something that can be neglected, it must be maintained. Without a central hub of some description, where employees can meet and engage in natural interactions, is it possible to cultivate company culture? Is it possible to nurture a sense of camaraderie? Offices are social hubs, places where people develop friendships. Spontaneous and informal interactions that occur naturally in an office environment are impossible to replicate over video conference. As this Economist article describes, “work-related video meetings are too often transactional, awkward and unappealing.” These interactions are not just important for socialising. The book Creativity Inc describes Steve Jobs’ thought process when designing Pixar’s headquarters. The objective was to enhance their ability to make films and as such “everything about the place was designed to encourage people to meet, mingle and communicate”. Solving problems and creative thinking are team sports.
There is no doubt that digital communication is less effective than face-to-face communication. For those of us who have worked on complex projects with large teams, this is a truth universally acknowledged. Academically, there are many well-cited studies on the importance of body language and tone of voice in a professional setting. These are elements that can be mitigated by video conferencing, but not replaced. Not only are they a slower method of communication, but written messages are so often misunderstood or misinterpreted. This repeatedly leads to misunderstandings, greater conflict and slower problem resolution. In a post-office world, communication with colleagues is no longer casual, but laborious.
Some roles lend themselves naturally to working remotely, particularly where the work is straightforward and the employee can work autonomously. As we’ve already discussed, poor communication makes it difficult for large teams to work well remotely. It is natural to assume, therefore, that the same logic applies to making complex high-level decisions when working remotely, This explains why a director of one London-based tech firm believes that their senior leadership will be the first to return to the office. While many metrics suggest their productivity has increased during the lockdown, there is a nervousness that they will likely suffer in the long run. Learning and maintaining accountability is much harder with remote teams. Establishing the relationships required to win new business is challenging, if not impossible without face-to-face interaction.
Many businesses are currently asking the question “Do we need a permanent office?”. The answer clearly depends on the nature of each individual organisation. It’s likely that we will see a macro trend away from fixed desks and towards a more flexible, meeting-based office space. This half-way approach will mean companies and their employees can maximise the benefits of working from home while seeking to minimise the negatives.
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