is the office dead

Is the office dead? Impacts of Covid-19 on Britain’s office culture.

James Baly, co-founder at Nowcomm, explores the challenges businesses face in creating a cohesive work practice strategy that’s both flexible and secure to match ways of working in the ‘new normal.’

It’s been almost four months since the onset of the nationwide lockdown, which forced many employers to transition to a remote based work model with little notice, in some cases almost overnight. This unexpected move left little time for thought or preparation, but four months later, many employees have settled into their home working routine.

Now, as lockdown measures start to ease, many businesses are faced with a big decision: do they make home working the ‘new normal,’ or do they return to the office? In this article, we take a look at the benefits and challenges of both models, and why ultimately the office plays a key role in a company’s culture.

The benefits of the home office

Although at the beginning of the lockdown, many employers were understandably wary of such unprecedented, large-scale home working. The past few months, however, have highlighted some of the benefits that this model can bring for both employers and employees.

Productivity

While working in a noisy office surrounded by your colleagues presents many opportunities to waste a few minutes chatting, working at home in peace and quiet might actually boost employees’ productivity. In fact, a recent study found that half of Brits have found themselves to be more productive working from home under lockdown measures.

Environment

Working from home allows employees to personalise their workspace to create an environment which they love to work in, whether this is working outside, at the kitchen table, or from the sofa. Many of us have been able to say goodbye to dingy, stuffy offices and trade these in for a comfortable desk surrounded by a few desk plants or your favourite pet.

Flexibility

Working remotely gives employees greater flexibility to deal with personal or family needs during the day. Once your daily commute becomes the walk from your bedroom to your desk, you suddenly have much more time to deal with those small household tasks that usually stress you out at the end of the workday. Added to this are the savings made on petrol or season travel tickets, and of course the benefits of less pollution for the environment.

The flexibility of working from home also means that you can maximise your lunch break, either by taking a walk, taking an online workout class, or getting the laundry done.

Cutting office costs

From an employer point of view, a remote workforce can reduce operating costs ranging from office space to office supplies. Businesses also report fewer unscheduled absences from remote workers. Employees can take care of an ill child or make a remote medical appointment without taking a full day off work. Fewer absences can create significant savings for a business.

Four months later, the downsides are starting to hit

At first, the novelty of home working was quite exciting for all of us, whether it was building new bonds via video, or just being able to walk your dog on your lunch break. However, as the months have dragged on, the reality of the situation has started to hit.

Not everyone’s home is adapted for home working

One obvious downside to working from home is that not all of us have the luxury of a home with a designated office space, or even a quiet place to work. Think of the reality of working as a couple from a small, one-bed flat, or even a studio without space for a desk, let alone two.

Many offices also have furniture specifically designed to support comfortable desk working. During the lockdown, a lot of us have had to improvise, and this has resulted in a significant increase in musculoskeletal complaints. A recent survey found that just under 60 percent of respondents reported neck pain, as well back pain (55 percent) and shoulder complaints (56 percent).

In the same light, working from home might also make it harder to strike a healthy balance between work and home life. When you can see your laptop from your bed, feeling truly switched off from work becomes an even bigger challenge. Over half of respondents to the same survey said they felt that working from home did not improve their work-life balance.

Distractions

Working from home definitely offers flexibility, but it can also come with a whole host of extra distractions, from demanding children to the neighbour mowing the lawn. This is where the need for noise-cancelling headphones designed for office use becomes apparent – but they might be a luxury that some people can’t afford, or a collaboration tool that an employer hasn’t provided.

Added to personal distractions are the instant messaging platforms and apps, such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, which we’ve all been using to stay in touch with our colleagues. Although these are a great way to simultaneously work on the same project, share feedback and gather opinions, they can also become a dumping ground. Where we might take a few moments to consider the wording of an email (or if it’s really even necessary in the first place) it’s much easier to send an impulsive instant message, and with multiple communication channels open at once, you can quickly end up drowning in a sea of pinging chat notifications.

Tech issues

Keeping company data and applications safe with employees working remotely, from their own devices and from outside the network perimeters, has been a big concern throughout the lockdown. There’s been a big uptake in coronavirus-related email phishing scams, many employees don’t have the right security measures installed on their personal devices, and we’ve all heard about Zoom-bombing.

In fact, a global study found that 59% of employees felt more cyber secure working in-office compared to at home, and 1 in 10 employees had their video calls hacked while working remotely.

Working from home lacks the human element

Quite possibly the greatest downside to home working which has become apparent over the recent months is that technology simply can’t replace the human interaction that we get from seeing our colleagues every day in the office.

Working from home can be socially isolating

For many people, the time they spend in the office might be the only time they interact with people mid-week, other than those who they live with. Once this is taken away, working from home can become a very lonely experience. A recent survey found that a third of respondents felt that loneliness was the biggest downside to working from home, whilst a further 25 percent reported feelings of anxiety. More than half say they miss having in-person conversations with their co-workers.

Even though we all sometimes get annoyed by our colleagues (and who wouldn’t, when you spend 37.5 hours a week sitting opposite them), the spark that comes from interacting with them in person every day adds something to the workplace which Skype or Zoom just can’t.

Whether it’s the buzz of a busy office floor, that two minute chat waiting for the kettle to boil, or some moral support during the lunch break, our colleagues are the ones who make us feel welcome, valued and at home in the workplace.

Team building

Many remote workers struggle to build relationships with colleagues. It can be difficult for remote employees to connect with each other when they have limited in-person contact, and fostering a sense of being a team is essential for workforce cohesion and productivity, as well as employee wellbeing.

On-boarding of new employees also becomes a big challenge in a remote environment. Onboarding is clearly about much more than filling out paperwork and getting your new laptop; it’s about building relationships with team members and instilling a sense of the company ethos. Achieving this remotely is much more difficult.

Zoom fatigue is a thing

Finally, Zoom fatigue is a real thing. Spending hours each day on video conferencing tools can be mentally exhausting and even anxiety inducing when you have a dozen close-up faces staring at you. Recent research has found that the reason we find video conferencing more draining than face-to-face interaction is that being on a video call requires more focus since we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language.

It’s all about striking the balance

Finding the right model for the future isn’t just about weighing up the pros and cons of sticking with a remote working model or returning to the office; employers should also consider the possibility of adopting a flexible, hybrid approach.

A new survey from Office Space in Town (OSiT) claims that the overwhelming majority of workers are looking forward to a return to the office. However, most also want to have more control over their times and places of work and want new working environments that help them work better.

One size will never fit all – some employees are more productive and comfortable working from home, while some have really missed the office during lockdown. In order to prioritise both employee wellbeing and productivity, employers should consider a hybrid approach, which strikes the perfect balance between home and office working, and allows employees to tailor their working situation to how best suits them.

It’s very clear that data security is even more important than before. If the office is our castle, then building walls and defences is easy, but now that we’re living on the outside as well, this poses new security challenges. Creating working strategies so your organisation can thrive in the new normal is about achieving flexibility whilst also maintaining security.  We need the office for that more personable communication and buzz, but we also need tools to work in exactly the same way when we’re away from the office. The challenge businesses face therefore is creating a cohesive work practice strategy that’s both flexible and secure to match ways of working in the ‘new normal.’