Professor Lawrence Bellamy is Academic Dean for the Faculty of Business, Law and Tourism at the University of Sunderland
“The world is changing around us. As billions work remotely following the coronavirus outbreak, what will the ‘office of the future’ look like once we return to ‘normality’?”
Question: How has the past few weeks changed the way we work and is this change here to stay?
Professor Lawrence Bellamy: Yes, the movement restrictions imposed under coronavirus (COVID-19) have raised fundamental questions about how organisations can operate and are likely to have a substantive change in how employees work in the future.
Knowledge workers are the key to future economic prosperity in the UK, and keeping them happy and productive is critical.
Many organisations have been forced to rapidly improve their IT resource and their employees’ digital capability in order to remain operational and therefore viable. Working from home is the new/now model, and one which organisations would be right to give serious consideration to moving forward.
Q: How can this work though, will it not lead to a communication breakdown?
A: Meetings facilitated with devices and systems such as Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts have to be well-planned and operate under strict protocols.
Recording is easy and with comments added, there can be an ongoing dialogue in relation to any documentation considered. This may result in shorter and more purposeful meetings, succinctly recorded and with clearer outcomes.
Every meeting could be completed in half the time and without having to get to it in the first place.
Efficiency pays and I’ll bet you’ve never heard anyone say ‘I wish that meeting was longer’.
Q: But will this work in reality?
A: The subtleties of interactions beg for impeccable etiquette in electronic interaction.
When everyone is talking to everyone in type then succinct points are appreciated to prevent overload. There is no place for a rant or a ramble. Less is more.
The same person sending you dozens of emails? How much attention do you give them? Better, fewer, clearer messages to get the important points across. Everyone benefits and it’s more effective.
Q: So, can employee wellbeing benefit from this kind of working?
A: In short, yes. Whilst there is an important social aspect to work for many and the strong sense of belonging, which is difficult to achieve virtually, there are many benefits to remote working.
More flexibility in work scheduling (facilitate the school run, dentist appointment, drop some shopping off for mum etc) and responsiveness (when are working hours? It is quid pro quo), depending upon the suitability of communication and urgency of response.
Family friendly hours ensures that you get the best workers for the job, and they can be from anywhere.
Avoid the daily commute, no one can possibly like it. It’s expensive, tiring and you feel bad because you’re damaging the environment.
Though many work on the move, what is the quality of their work on the train/tube/bus if they are not in their car doing little but crawl through traffic. Car-phone calls are a distraction and therefore a safety risk.
Many employees will often put more time in from home and be more effective without the drag of non-productive traffic. Faced with a return to ‘normal’ practice, many will recognise how valuable this time and output really is. Doing the job and not just the ‘grind’.
Q: What about other benefits?
A: Infrastructure can be more effectively deployed too. Many expensive offices can be underutilised, with colleagues seeing clients, in meetings, on holiday, on sick leave, at lunch or out for a vape-break.
Buildings are expensive to acquire, resource and maintain; flexible practices with a minimal footprint can foster a high-quality environment. The best for less. It is without doubt that upon return to ‘normality’ post lockdown, facilities and estates managers will be tasked with reducing the overhead.
Whilst work provides us with a social context, networks and relationships which face to face can be engaging and stimulating and difficult to capture remotely, for many organisations who had not previously grasped the opportunities that remote working bring, this period of disruption has been both a trial and education, within a tragic context.
It is inevitable that many organisations will wish to review how they operate and many individuals how they work, from this point on. It’s in all interests to do so.