Recent work-related conversations have fallen into a pattern. They open with a discussion about how we feel about being at home five days a week. Many say they enjoy the extra time freed up by not commuting and how much easier it is to be productive in the quiet of your own office.

These sentiments echo the findings of a survey carried out by RollOnFriday. This quote from one lawyer puts it well: “I am fitter, I eat better and I work for less time but in more intense bursts.” He adds: “I have also seen my wife and children more in the last three months than I did in the nine months prior to lockdown.”

But there are downsides to being at home all the time. One investment consultant told me he missed the serendipity of a seemingly pointless conversation which triggers a new idea for a project or how to solve a problem. Another marketing contact said she was hankering for lunchtime sushi.

More worryingly a partner at another investment consultancy said he was working longer hours. Fewer meetings and less travelling has put greater pressure on professional service personnel to be always available.

School closures are exacerbating these issues with parents having to take childcare shifts and squeeze working hours into the early morning or late at night. This is a worrying trend – flexible working should not mean working every waking hour.

The long months of lockdown have broken old working patterns and revealed faults with the old system as well as the challenges with flexible working. Both employers and employees have the time and the space to think about building a better workplace for the future.

Prioritise productivity

The first step is move away from the old ways of the thinking about the purpose of an office. As outlined in a wonderful article for the Economist’s sister magazine 1843, the aim of the office was to instill efficiency in the workforce. But instead they ‘immediately institutionalised idleness’.

Over time, people have spent more and more time at offices. That’s partially because work takes longer in unproductive places but also due to the rise of the presenteesim – where your value is assessed by the number of hours spent in an office chair rather than the number of projects delivered.

In Invisible Women Caroline Criado Perez talks about how conflating long hours with job effectiveness creates an invisible male bias. Statistician Nate Silver found the hourly rate for those working 50 hours or more in the US – 70% of whom are men – has risen twice as fast since 1984 as hourly pay for those working 39 to 49 hours a week.

The popularity of the long-hours culture is particularly pernicious to working mothers. Women find it harder to rise up the ranks of the company if they are effectively penalised because they leave early to collect children from school.

There is a danger presenteeism will be replaced with the expectation for employees to work any and every hour of the day. We should instead think less about the numbers of hours worked and more about how to maximise productivity.

People not screens

That means re-thinking the purpose of the office – we should acknowledge these are great places for people to spend time together. It might be vital for some teams to come to work every day because they need to sit in the same room to function at their best.

For others the office will be the place for a meeting with key stakeholders when the initial project parameters are being set. Or the perfect space to get to know a new client. Others value hanging out in the coffee shop, answering emails and having that seemingly meaningless conversation which sparks a new idea.

We need to move away from the ‘one size fits all’ attitude to working life. Different people will have different requirements. Younger colleagues in shared apartments may well need a formal office space. Others might just prefer to leave the house every day.

Flexible working should be about allowing people to decide when and which hours they work rather than being constantly on demand. It’s about allowing a working mother to fit work in around childcare without expecting her to also work a 50-hour week.

Economic realities

While a new workplace culture can be decided now by employers surveying and talking to their staff, the economic impact of the pandemic could initially constrain any radical change.

Depending on the depth and the scale of the post Covid-19 recession, many businesses may well reduce headcount and have less need for office space. If the remaining employees want to spend less time at a physical location, leasing office space may seem an uneconomic option.

For some firms, shared office space on a short-lease may well be the better solution. This will give firms the flexibility to rent what they need and to switch back to individual contracts once economic outlook brightens.

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