How COV-19 will change the world of offices and homeworking (possibly)

Published on 2 April 2020 in , , ,

It is compulsory right now to start writing anything with a sentence a bit like this next one… I don’t know if you’ve noticed but things are a little strange now.

As I type, the UK is in lockdown. Some people are key workers and are busting a gut keeping the country going. Heading out day in day out to face unbelievable challenges, worrying about their own health. The rest of us sit at home trying to get used to a world where we’re supposed to go out as little as possible. Where lots of the usual diversions have disappeared.

Some people are now temporarily (or maybe permanently) without jobs. Others are still heading in to where they work. And another group are adapting to a life working from home instead of an office.

It’s that last group I’m going to look at. For all this homeworking that’s suddenly happening has been deemed to be a game-changer by many. Jobs that managers once insisted could only be done in a building, are now being done in peoples kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms, or even gardens.

I know a bit about homeworking. I started doing it in April 2016. And I can tell you something for sure. This is not normal homeworking. In fact the best description of it I have seen was on Twitter:

“You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.”

But still, when all this is over, I think several things will happen. And these are as follows…

1) Lots of people will quite happily rush back to the office, and will be happy to stay there

Think about that quote again. You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work. This is not optimal homeworking. Many people will really not enjoy the experience, and will quite probably write off homeworking forever based on it.

There’s many reasons for this. Some people don’t have the space to homework. Won’t have anywhere dedicated they can work from. You don’t want to be working from the kitchen table for years on end.

Some people won’t be able to cope with the quietness of being in a house all day trying to work. And dude, it can get lonely.

Some people will be struggling to work because their children are running around the house. It’s not normal in school time but remember – it is during school holidays.

Some people are social animals and enjoy the company of others. Homeworking really isn’t for everyone.

2) Some people will decide homeworking really suits them. Their employer will support them in this.

This is a no brainer. How many people will fall into this boat, I don’t know, but I know my own employer is extremely supportive of homeworkers (hello!) and will listen carefully to those who want to do it. In a recent call, the man in charge of our division described the shift of huge numbers of his team moving to their homes as a game changer for the work environment. He recognises this is going to have an impact on the way we, as an organisation, structure ourselves and will operate in the future. He is open to it. Many other employers will be likewise open to it.

3) Some companies will decide homeworking really suits them. They will boot huge swathes of people out of the office, whether they like it or not.

This is the flip side of the above. Lots of companies are going to see this simply as a way to save on costly office space. There will be companies who will therefore boot people back to their homes. Some will be fine with that. Others will not. Companies who go down this route may find themselves losing staff over it. They may equally gain staff because of it.

4) Some companies will try to pretend all this never happened, and will try to get everything back to how it was before

A few years ago I’m having lunch with some friends. We’re talking about work related things. And I learn that none of the others at the table are allowed to work from home. At all. It’s not allowed. It is completely forbidden where they are.

The people I was having lunch with all do similar jobs to me. At this point I’d been successfully working from home for about six months. I was proof the jobs they were doing could be done partially – or even entirely – at home. They weren’t allowed. Not even the odd day.

We all worked for the same employer.

The difference was line managers. Their line manager was anti-working from home. Mine was very happy to support it.

I think that particular line manager left some years ago, but mindsets like that prevail all over the place. And are going to be difficult to shift. When all this is over, such people will be insisting people come into the office when they don’t need to. People who want to work from home more, and have done for some time because of COVID-19, will suddenly be told it doesn’t work. They can’t do it any more.

5) Where homeworking is encouraged, teams will become more distributed geographically

Apart from me, every member of my team lives and works in the South East of England. I sit here in Manchester’s suburbs and work with them quite well. Despite me being elsewhere for four years, my team still isn’t particularly geographically diverse.

But in a few weeks time that will change. Someone new is joining the team. And they live in a completely different part of the country.

We hired them before the COVID-19 crisis started and said person was intending to relocate to London. Instead they will join our team from their current location 150 miles away from the rest of the team. It’s likely to be a couple of months before they meet any of their new colleagues in person.

I haven’t spoken to this person. Wasn’t involved in hiring. I don’t know if they had other reasons for moving to London beside work. But one thing is for sure – when we can move freely again, it will be up to them. If they want to move, we will support them. If they decide to stay put, we will support them.

Geographical spread is likely to be a change that will happen more slowly than the rest, but if more people decide to work from home, there’s no reason for it not to happen.

6) Infrastructure will need to change

I’ve written a lot about the impact on people here, but I’ll end with a more physical one.

A lot is going to have to change. Corporate IT functions will need to cope with potentially more people avoiding the office, for example. A lot of people are working from home with hastily cobbled together setups right now. Even employers like mine who are geared up to remote working, have found their systems strained by offices suddenly emptying. There’s going to have to be work there.

But it’s not just IT that will be impacted. Public transport will too.

The other day I saw someone state that HS2 won’t be needed because more people will be working from home. It’s been a common line from those who are anti-HS2.

And as far as I am concerned, it’s bollocks. Four years of experience tells me it’s bollocks. For there are some things that are best done face to face. And that means travel.

Normally I travel to London once or twice a month. I have colleagues who regularly travel from London to Salford. Or between Salford and Glasgow. Or London and Glasgow. I know people who will sometimes do trips that involve three different offices.

As teams get more geographically diverse, fast, efficient intercity travel gets more and more important. I can get between Manchester and London easily enough, but Manchester to Glasgow could be so much better. If I needed to visit people in Cardiff? Ha!

Of course this is office based travel. I’m assuming we will still have offices even if more people travel to them less. There will still need to be places people can meet for work related reasons. Meeting rooms, collaboration zones, etc.

What could be impacted is local public transport. But even then, if people are staying at home more, they will still want to leave their homes. Travel patterns may change.

It’s a vision of the future

None of this is set in stone. We are currently in the middle of a major pandemic and things are changing rapidly. That visit to a pub I did a few weeks ago now seems an extremely long time ago.

But one thing is for sure. Change has happened. And change will keep on happening.

Who really knows what the world will look like at the over side of this. How much of the above will actually happen? Pass. Things end up being very different. But some things may also look very familiar.