Culture

This changes everything: office life after the great return

In the third of a five-part series on the long-term impacts of the pandemic, Krupa Solanki of UnWork investigates who should return to the office and how they should behave

In our earlier articles on the long-term impact of the pandemic, we examined shifts in technology and the changing nature of work itself. This third article explores the future of the physical workplace. Cynics have been telling us that our offices have been killing us for years. With the descent of Covid-19, offices became no-go zones, dangerous for us. Where ad-hoc meetings, shared space, and physical collaboration between colleagues were once celebrated as a backbone to productivity, in a sharp turn these activities soon became injurious to our health.

Prior to the pandemic, there had been an active drive towards creating offices which encourage collaboration, serendipitous collisions and collegiate atmospheres. As a result, we saw a transition from the office as a space for performative, ‘at-desk’ work, to a space for effective collaboration and productive teams. With it came the great promise of global cultural shift, with a relaxation of traditional hierarchy, more informal dress and etiquette, and the removal of the ‘status’ corner offices of yesteryear.

Glimpse into domestic lives

A work-from-home trial by fire now means that most ‘office jobs’ can be conducted virtually. Even those beyond office life, that were not a natural fit for virtual success, have also been creatively re-imagined as depicted by virtual cooking masterclasses and live-streamed musical events. What does this mean for the bricks and mortar office which, before now, was supposed to hold the secret to our success? Not only have people been able to perform their jobs at homes, the opportunity has even bought teams closer with bosses now able to gain a mischievous glimpse into the domestic lives of their employers, and vice versa.

Jack Dorsey, CEO and founder at Twitter, started a trend when he surprised his employees with a global mandate permitting them the option of working from home indefinitely. Given research from Hitachi Capital UK, there appears to be clear desire for more flexibility. This study found that 69 per cent of recruitment/HR staff, 67 per cent of sales workers, 65 per cent working in the science and pharmaceutical sectors and 63 per cent of workers in IT, creative arts and design would opt for their homes rather than the office desk once the restrictions are lifted.

For the 61 per cent of legal staff who stated they would prefer to continue working at home beyond lockdown, a third cited the lack of commute as their top motivation while others cited a reduction in meetings (28 per cent) and the cost savings of not having to commute to the office every day (14 per cent).

Working from home indefinitely has a downside with poor tools, more distractions and inadequate spaces to work. This crisis has highlighted the asymmetry in productivity based on personal circumstances; the seasoned executive with a home office is better suited to working from home than the recent graduate sharing a house with five other flatmates vying for wi-fi connectivity and space. Furthermore, those with young children may soon be begging for a return to work in a child- free space, thereby carving some division between work and life.

Wider collateral damage

Beyond individuals, there is also a collateral effect on the wider economy – transport, retail, hospitality will all likely be affected. In selecting to work from home we forgo our right to lunchtimes, meal-deals or overpriced sandwiches thereby indirectly affecting an entire economic ecosystem dependent on office workers from sandwich makers to taxi and delivery drivers.

At these times, it is also worth reminding ourselves of the many advantages of a sacred space dedicated to the ‘art of working’. Offices are not all grey carpets and awkward elevator exchanges, they are also containers for community, fraternity, companionship. Prior to the pandemic, most office workers spent 50 per cent of their waking hours in the office and it is clear that the people we spend those hours with are destined to have a compelling effect on our lives.

‘Offices are also containers for community, fraternity, companionship …’

A recent Gallup survey on workplace demonstrated that 63 per cent of people who agree they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be productively engaged in their work. The physical office is a garden for cultivating such relationships which bloom over ‘how was your weekends?’, quick coffee catch-ups and shared workplace experiences.

Hot-desks and hygiene

If the physical office is saved, what of the future of shared space within the office? The past few years have demonstrated an increasing trend towards activity-based working and/or hot-desking in which colleagues share spaces, thereby increasing their mobility and ability to seek out spaces better suited to the flow of the day. Our natural inclination may be to revert to one-to-one seating – the ‘my mess, my germs’ mentality.

But the opposite position can be argued. By opting for a hot-desking system in which employees pitch down at different desks every day, people are best encouraged to uphold the hallowed ‘clear desk policy’. By stashing personal items in lockers overnight to be collected and used at a new desk the following day, employers will be able to ensure each desk is deep cleaned and sanitised.

Whichever way the hammer eventually falls, the politics of who sits where will indelibly be changed in the coming few months, and potentially years. For one, density will by choice, or perhaps by government mandate, with a need to decrease density with either a contingent of the workforce remaining at permanently at home or a staggered on-off approach with certain teams coming in one week and others the next week. Of course, some employers – like Jack Dorsey – may opt to close their workplaces for the foreseeable future but this does little to justify expensive leases and large real estate footprints.

Some offices are more risky

Another enduring query is the nature of the space itself. Large sprawling campuses, to which employees traditionally drive, are objectively less risky than tall buildings in urban metropolises stacked over 10-plus floors. Just the elevator taking you to the 15th floor can be riddled with potential disease and this is without even considering the treacherous journey, often on public transport, to get there. Given the spread of this disease in dense conditions, it may be that considerations for people returning to urban spaces will be different for employees of the same company working at different offices.

Another consideration which intersects the question of where is the enigma of who. There are a multitude of risk ratings that can be applied to any one individual: commute, age, existing medical conditions, personal circumstances (such as living with someone at high risk) can all be taken into consideration when deciding who returns to the office. There are also work specific criteria that may be applied. especially considering roles (receptionists, security guards and so on) that require a physical space to fulfil their tasks.

Banning the over-50s

Given that this disease is statistically more likely to badly affect the over 50s, should there be a blanket policy forbidding these people from the office? This would have the compelling effect of having leaders, who are traditionally older in age, out of the office for the foreseeable future. This is not ideal. Juniors who learn their roles by observing and understanding would be put at a significant loss not having direct proximity to their seniors. There might also be difficulties for those mostly smaller companies who are familiar with seeing leadership walking the floors, for whom this would be a significant transformation.

Even if there is a richer and more productive engagement with staff who are in the workplace, those at home may feel left out. As with most things in this crisis, the outcomes present as a heady mix of potential good and bad. While every cloud may have a silver lining, there may also a storm brewing.

Threat of litigation

One particular storm that looks set to erupt is the potential wave of Covid-19 litigation triggered by a return to work. From selecting who goes back to the office first to the layout of the space itself, workplace decision-makers must balance the desire to get back ‘to normal’ with anti-discriminatory policies; they must sure that a rush to satisfy the former does not lead to a wave of the latter.

Classifying employees by age, ability or race has traditionally been a recipe for legal liability for employers and it looks set to become more problematic still. The suggestion that organisations may instigate a blanket ban of over 50s in the workplace is likely to contravene anti age-discrimination litigation.

By contrast, should a company compel an employee to return to work without taking into consideration their personal circumstances? They may well be asking for litigation there too. To put it simply, we just do not know but with the elimination of employment tribunal fees in the UK as of 2019, employees have little to lose in seeking to teach their employer a potentially very expensive lesson.

It gets more complicated still when you go beyond the criteria for readmitting people to the office to managing their behaviour within it. The implications for workplace culture could be huge – from mandated lunch hours and staggered commute times to the death of the watercooler moments. Another feature of this Pandora’s Box will be a thorough reimagining of the role of the employer and their relationship with an employee. With the rise of robotics and drone delivery, a contact-free lunch may be in sight, but we are not there yet.

In large urban centres, the lunchtime rush between 12-2pm can cause considerable issues for social distancing, but for an employer to mandate or suggest certain times that employees can or should go for lunch may be straying too far into paternalist territory.

Another question remains about policing. A purist may say that good natured, civic minded employees will act within the rules – taking their lunch hour at required times, always washing their hands and retaining a two-metre distance from colleagues – but sceptics will have alternative opinions. Through ignorance, defiance or simple oversight, people may fail to act within new workplace regulations. Should employees be encouraged to whistle-blow on colleagues not following the rules? Will we see the rise of the hygiene monitors accompanying fire wardens as guardians of the workplace? Doing so may not be so unbelievable given the already dystopian state of our circumstances.

Death of the handshake

On office etiquette, The New Yorker published an ‘in memorium’ to the humble handshake, pre-empting the death of this two thousand eight-hundred-year-old tradition. First seen on a limestone dais carved in antiquity and often cited as a symbol of business virility, the demise of the handshake will be celebrated and mourned in equal measure. In the absence of this politically correct form of workplace physical contact, there is now a big question about what follows next for workplace etiquette.

The New Yorker suggests some options in the ‘elbow bump, the foot shake, the peace sign, and the wave’. My personal predilection strays more towards the contact- free namaste favoured by Prince Charles; a firm favourite in Southeast Asia and virtually entirely germ-free, the gesture is taken to symbolise that one participant ‘bow to the light within’ the other. which gives us some much-needed spiritual respite at this trying time.

Contactless pathways

In a more targeted sense, this crisis has given us some indication of what the future office may look like. When Zaha Hadid Architects announced a new HQ in Sharjah, UAE, designed around ‘contactless pathways’ which rendered employees able to move around the building without touching physical surface, it was largely regarded as an opulent exception. However, with the emergence of this pandemic where the disease is largely spread through touch, the touchless space feels eerily prescient.

Prior to the pandemic, piecemeal efforts were already underway to create a more user-friendly, experience-driven workplace. Given the crisis, our return to the office looks set to propel in that direction. Facial recognition and biometric entry which requires little to no physical contact with the physical space and a wireless-everything approach which permits an individual’s personal device to customise their space also avoids the dread of other people’s germs.

‘The big opportunity in this transformation is to create new frameworks and systems that empower employees…’

This global pandemic has been fundamentally turbulent. In its unexpected arrival, it has exposed both the strengths and inadequacies of office life as we knew it. To surmount the challenges, we are faced with now, we will require an entirely new way of thinking. To do this, we need to stop thinking of workplace in strict binaries: the question should not be office or home, productive or useless, to travel or remain fixed; rather we should look to the spirit of compromise and understand, as with most things in life, the truth is somewhere in between.

The big opportunity in this transformation is not a final decision on the viability of home working versus office – it is an opportunity to create new frameworks and systems which empower employees to work wherever they are most productive based on the activities of their day. As many firms have embraced the benefits of an activity-based working model, should we view this as an opportunity to take it one step further: activity-placed working.  If people can be productive at home, the office can be re-imagined as a space for a collegiate community to come together for effective collaboration. If done correctly, it could be doubly formidable; the best of both worlds.

Krupa Solanki is Chief of Staff at UnWork and Cordless Consultants, with a background in human rights and criminal law. This article is the third in a series on how Covid-19 will change the world.
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