Home working isn’t going away: how do we adapt?

As the second wave of the pandemic approaches, businesses are preparing for long-term home working. How can you make a virtue of a necessity?

Winter is coming, and with it, in many countries, the early indications of a second wave of the pandemic. Some countries are starting to ease back towards a lockdown. The UK, for example, is now suggesting that people work at home whenever they can. That’s a major reversal of the exhortations to return to work of a month ago. Home working is here to stay for many.

What’s staggering is that, for most of us white-collar, UK-resident knowledge workers, this means a year-long experiment in home working. Now, I’m perhaps not the best example of this: I work from home most of the time. For many, though, this has been their first extended period doing it. For them, the great pause becomes ever more a great reset the longer it goes on. There will come a day when they return to the office — but will they ever go there as routinely as they used to? Almost certainly not.

The implications of this are manifold and complex. Let’s highlight just three of the most prominent ones.

1. The Polo Mint Recovery

Some of our predictions from a couple of months back are already coming true: little by little, city centres (in the UK, at least) are being hollowed out. Businesses that exist to serve commuters are collapsing. They are simply unable to sustain a year of trading with a fraction of their normal footfall.

Yet, businesses in the commuter suburbs are clawing their way back to profitability, and even looking at a potentially more prosperous future. Local merchants who added home delivery during lockdown are keeping those services running. Local pubs and coffee shops (see below) have seen trade increase during weekdays when they’re normally deserted.

Not every city or country will suffer this. Those with a more healthy mix of residential and commercial property will weather the storm better. But this big, international cities with a strong commuter element are facing the economic gale in full force.

Behind the doom-laden headlines of deserted city centres in some countries, the UK included, lies a more complex story of economic rebalancing. The money once spent in those city centres will largely be spent elsewhere, as will the cash formerly splashed on commuting. Online retailers stand to benefit, but so do local ones.

But this rebalancing will play out over years, as new uses are found for now unproductive buildings. There will be rocky times in the middle. The price is paid in terms of destroyed businesses and incomes — but opportunities for those who accept that the change is real and move to capitalise on it.

2. Rebuilding the workplace community online

It’s inevitable that any forced evolution like this will have winners and losers. And, while this is anecdote rather than data, some organisations are handling the transition well, and some awfully. Those that are finding ways of using digital communications tools informally as well as formally, will prosper. Managers and staff have quick check-ins, and take time to shoot the breeze as well as have meetings, leading to motivated, productive staff.

Those who are hiding behind text chat in Teams or Slack, and who haven’t talked directly to their direct reports in months are seeing their staff demoralised, and demotivated.

This is the evolutionary pressure on organisations: adapt and thrive. Fall short, and lose good staff to more forward-thinking organisations. Some organisation may already be in the early stages of a death spiral, but because they’re so disconnected from their staff, they won’t realise it.

The smartest, most agile companies are realising that those things that physical proximity gifted you, like opportunities for ad hoc mentoring, have to be replaced. Staff need to be confident that they can have a quick video call as easily as they popped round to someone’s desk. Mentoring needs to be formalised, as it perhaps always should have been, and delivered remotely for now.

At the beginning of this crisis, we had the excuse of its urgency for just replicating the physical dynamics of the office digitally. Now we need to start thinking more seriously about the different forms of social support that are needed when people aren’t physically present. Even the tool providers seem to be realising this: the Microsoft Teams announcements suggest they’re being to think more creatively about the role of their tool.

3. The new third spaces

Even as we do our best to socially distance until a vaccine is found, people are going to continue to need physical social interaction.

To be blunt: when they’re allowed to, they need to get out of the house and interact with others. However much we love our family, working alongside them is a challenge, and time away is vital. Absence makes the heart grow fonder… Social escape is a pre-requisite of home working.

Historically, we’ve done that with our workmates because it’s easy. You spend eight hours (or more) a day with them. Why wouldn’t you? You have lunch with them, you pop to the pub for a pint after work. Easy.

Some companies have engineered spaces to create social encounters out of people’s immediate workgroup, from Apple with its new offices designed around encounter spaces, to digital agencies with coffee machines on the ground floor, and barista training for their staff.

However, does this need to be with colleagues? Third places — coffee shops, co-working spaces and their ilk — will provide both workspaces for part of the day, and the ability to interact with others, and get inspiration from them. And, thus, start building thriving local economies, where more of the money we earn stays locally.

Indeed, if people start gravitating towards third places with people in similar professions, new relationships emerge. The sort of ad hoc mentoring that many people cite as a major reason for a return to the office could arise in other ways.

Embracing the new normal

Nostalgia can be a wonderful, emotional experience. But it is not a business model, and it is not a basis for urban planning or business decisions. Home working will be a big part of our working future, even when offices are fully open again. The old, commuting past is gone, and, even once this pandemic is contained, what emerges afterwards will look very different.

Find what is good in the new, remember what was good in the old. Then, find a way to bring both with you into the new normal. The time to talk about the future is before you need it. Your family, employees and clients will all thank you for it.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash