With the world adjusting to the concept and challenges of home working, it is inevitable that businesses which successfully adapt to the concept will reconsider the form of the workplace.
Having worked out the methodologies to measure productivity from a home-based workforce, and coming to terms with the foreign notion of not having to be able to visually supervise their workforce (I was told this week of a law firm which wanted its employees to run Zoom meetings constantly so they could see their staff were working!), more radical reconstitutions for the workplace are possible.
Some of the benefits are obvious. Instead of employees spending up to three hours a day travelling to and from work, and consequently being tired or stressed both at work and at home, commuting time – which is unproductive for both work life and social life – is effectively eliminated.
I am confident this will be increasingly apparent to employers, not only because their employees will be fresher but also because the employee then has more time each day to devote to productive work. One of the challenges employees find as a consequence of home working is of the difficulty of setting defined boundaries between work and non-work hours.
A recent study of the benefits of flexible working estimated that it could contribute $10.04 trillion to the global economy by 2030,1 and this was reinforced by a study which demonstrated a positive association between the availability of flexible working – both remote working and schedule flexibility – and long-term financial performance.
So while the immediate and widespread impact from the lockdown and associated restrictions is negative, there will be many businesses that will find that underlying performance, rather than just that generated from market activity, is enhanced. In other words, while profits and revenues may fall as a consequence of lower economic activity, the number of employees required to generate these outputs will be disproportionately lower due to improvements in productivity.
Post-Covid-19, I believe there will be a reappraisal of many workplaces. They will be smaller, with proportionally more space allocated to meeting rooms and social areas, and more hot desks for workers who happen to be in the workplace rather than working at home as they normally would.
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Might we actually see an inversion of the traditional workspace, with offices becoming the place employees come once a week to socialise, meet co-workers and attend team or client meetings, and the work itself being done elsewhere?
This also probably challenges the new co-working spaces, because one of the key benefits of home working is going to be the ability to work without the constant distractions of open plan offices (statistically a disruption occurs every 11 minutes, with employees taking 20+ minutes to get back to full productivity).
Perhaps this new model will be to rent desks not by the week but by the day or hour, with their primary function being to supply the cafes, meeting rooms and breakfast areas required by the businesses of the future, which will not require full-time desks and offices.
This may take some time to evolve, not least because it will clearly present challenges to traditional office landlords and will also have consequences for urban design and the structure of our towns and cities, our infrastructure and the availability and location of housing. These changes are likely to be profound.
- Andrew Barnes is the founder of Perpetual Guardian.