This month Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey told employees they could work from home permanently, and Google and Facebook have said they plan to continue working remotely at least through to the end of the year.
One thing's for sure: alert level 2 - with its social distancing and hygiene requirements - has meant New Zealand businesses have had to reduce office capacity and put a stop to hot-desking - thank Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
One step further: perhaps we might see the end of the open-plan workplace, seeing as there was a significant outbreak at a call centre in South Korea. Of the 1143 employees tested, there were 97 confirmed cases, and 94 were working on the 11th floor. Despite considerable interaction between floors, in the lifts and lobby, the spread was limited almost exclusively to the open-plan area, which indicates that the duration of contact was likely the main facilitator for the spread.
Open-plan offices a no-go
Open-plan spaces have displaced cubicles and offices the world over in a bid to allow better and more efficient collaboration between co-workers. And it's no secret that law firms spend big dollars on innovative open-plan fitouts - Russell McVeagh's Auckland office took the plunge in 2017, for example.
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But despite the hype, according to a 2019 Harvard Business Review study that looked at two Fortune 500 firms before and after the companies changed from cubicles to open offices: face-to-face interactions fell by 70 per cent when the firms made the transition to open-plan, while electronic interactions increased. Why? People have an amazing capacity to create a "fourth wall" to divorce themselves from interacting with each other.
In terms of gender, a 2018 study (conducted in an open-plan Auckland law firm, no less) found the increased visibility associated with open-plan spaces negatively affected women, who reported feeling visible, exposed, and judged.
"With open space, it feels like a fishbowl. I have noticed more subtle pressure to stay later even if you don't technically need to," one female lawyer said.
Ultimately, a systematic review in the 2017 edition of the NZ Medical Journal sums it up best: open-plan workspaces lead to increased sickness absence, lower job satisfaction and productivity, and possible threats to recruitment and retention of staff. The review also touched on confidentiality issues relating to clients and health professionals - interesting indeed.
Working from home
It's easy to think collaboration architecture came about as a result of wanting to cut costs by reducing the number of employees per square metre, but arguably slides-as-stairs, foosball tables, free food and beverages, and "think tank" rooms have reflected an era of trying to make offices more comfortable, so it's easier to work around the clock. That's ironic, seeing as technology has increasingly made working remotely that much easier (and more practical from an employee point of view in terms of commute times and cost, and work and life balance, for example).
Yahoo's 2012 blanket policy banned working from home; human resources director Jackie Reses said "speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home" in 2013, for example.
The business case against remote working is just not true, however. According to a 2018 study by Stanford University's professor Nicholas Bloom, those working from home had a 50 per cent decrease in attrition, were found to take shorter breaks, had fewer sick days and took less time off. They were also found to be working full shifts (and more), as opposed to a control group, who would be late to the office or leave early multiple times a week. The company in question - Ctrip - China's largest travel agency with 16,000 employees, also saved almost US$2000 per employee on rent.
Against remote working
Why might businesses prefer to revert to the ol' days? Presenteeism, issues relating to maintaining a sense of control and hierarchy, and micromanagement come to mind. And this is despite what people on the ground actually want. In a study by the NZ Herald, 48 per cent of 7226 people said they loved working from home during the lockdown, and found they were just as productive as in the office. Just 12 per cent of the pollsters said they needed to be in the office to be motivated, and 39 per cent said they would prefer a mix of home and office-based work.
Jacinda Ardern has even backed this sentiment in a Facebook live video, saying New Zealanders would travel more domestically - and contribute to the travel industry - if they had more flexibility in their working lives.
"I hear lots of people suggesting we should have a four-day work week. Ultimately that really sits between employers and employees. But as I've said, there's just so much we've learned about Covid and that flexibility of people working from home, the productivity that can be driven out of that."
On the flip side, figures analysed by the Observer showed mothers in the UK have typically provided at least 50 per cent more childcare during the lockdown (irrespective of whether they were working), as well as spending around 10-30 per more time than fathers in home-schooling their children. This highlights the issues of work/life imbalance that women experience.
As an aside, evidence shows pandemics exacerbate inequalities for girls and women, who are also often the hardest hit, and that women play an exceptionally large role in responding to crises.
Documents released to the Herald last week showed women made up the majority of frontline workers - 84.9 percent of the health sector, 80.7 per cent of checkout operators and office cashiers, for example.
Where does that leave us?
In any event, if you've worked from home during the lockdown your employer may compensate you with an allowance of $15 a week, and claim it as a business expense. This new "no evidence required" component created by IRD is interesting, but the electricity, internet, insurance, tea and coffee is arguably a drop in the bucket compared to workplace overheads (cleaners, rent, security, electricity, heating, catering, for example). It means said workplaces may have saved a lot of moolah as a result.
It's of little surprise that some law firms have gone the extra mile. According to a report released by the Aotearoa Legal Workers' Union last week, Chapman Tripp gave employees an additional $300 to help with home set-up; Chen Palmer gave an additional $200; Dentons Kensington Swan gave staff $50 for each month the offices were closed to contribute to internet costs; Harmans Lawyers subsidised lockdown costs up to a "certain level"; and Lowndes Jordan gave an additional $50.
To conclude, open-plan workspaces should be put in the bin, people should be provided with the option to work where and when it works best for the health and wellbeing of staff, and any company cost savings should be given directly back to the workforce.