The evolution of work and workplace

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It is no exaggeration to say that Covid-19 has led to changes in our world unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War. The pandemic response by Governments and the resulting lockdowns will be seen as a key moment in time that will be studied for many decades to come. Our children and grandchildren will learn of these series of events in their history books. Our lives in 2021 are in some ways vastly different to how they were only the beginning of the previous year.

One of the most profound changes in our lives has been how we work. The very essence of what we conceive of as “Work” has been irrevocably changed: “Work” is no longer somewhere we go; it is something that we do. For the majority of us in the knowledge economy, location has truly been severed from the concept of work. The ideals of being in the office Monday-to Friday / 9-to-5 have been left in the past in this evolution of work. For a large majority of people, this style of working may never return. Only time will tell whether the rush hour commute and business travel will be retired to the history books too.The pandemic and resulting lockdowns drove a colossal shift towards a completely digital mode of working. In March 2020, organisations had to execute within short days a flexible working model that would have typically taken many months if not years of change management and planning. In this regard the pandemic could be viewed as an accelerator towards the 4th Industrial Revolution, where we accelerated our transformation from an analogue towards a fully digitised economy.

When it became clear that even local travel would be restricted, organisations rapidly enabled technology to continue operating. There were stories of Investment Banking organisations handing credit cards to every member of the IT team and sending them out to buy as many laptops as they could get their hands on, when it became clear that their second Disaster Recovery sites for trading would also be taken offline. Such was the chaos in those early days; there were countless stories as organisations shifted entire operations entirely digital.

Throughout the past 15 years of implementing workplace technology, I have always considered it possible for organisations to work in a completely digital and decentralised way.  However it was never probable.  For some organisations there were immense cultural barriers to even the faintest idea of flexible working. Whether it was a stalwart partner at a Law Firm stating they wanted their staff on the payroll to be seen in the office, to a Financial firm demanding that everyone was at their desks prior to the markets opening; there were strong cultural factors against the concept of flexible working for all. For those people working in smaller companies, or those organisations that were forward thinkers, the idea of flexibility meant working from home once or twice a week. However even in that scenario the feelings of presenteeism meant the office had tremendous gravity to keep you coming back. Maybe people wanted to ensure they were seen in the office by the leadership; or maybe it was the thought of missing out on the gossip at the coffee kitchen. Most of us were firmly office workers in one way or another; with the idea of full time home working only for the few such as contractors or small businesses.

The lockdowns changed all of that. We were all forced to change together. Enforced remote working became a great leveller of sorts. It did not matter your management grade, or how long you were at the company, or how visible you wanted to be; everyone had to work from home. The temporary state of home working became semi-permanent. One could imagine that if the lockdown were only for a couple of weeks, those old ways of working would have snapped right back into place. The office would have been absolutely packed that first Monday back, with everyone sharing stories of how they battled for toilet roll and bags of flour in the supermarkets. Now we are 18 months in, those changes are now permanent.

One key factor in enabling this rapid change in the evolution of work is how technology supported such a change. Imagine if the pandemic would have hit only 10 years ago, before the days of high speed broadband. We would have been clogging our phone lines and waiting painfully for small attachments to be uploaded at dial up speeds. The application of technologies such as Teams, Zoom and WebEx enabled us to retain levels of communication which were almost as good as meeting in person. Cloud computing meant our data was not locked away on hard drives sitting in the office. Our work was immediately accessible. We just had to learn how to work in that way.

 Taking the optimistic approach, one would hope that this is the beginning of the end of the pandemic. As organisations start to return to their offices, many are looking at the familiar walls and wondering whether these spaces still reflect where the organisation is today. The way we work has changed so radically no one could ever have predicted. Should the office not go through a similar revolution? What is the role of the office moving forwards? How do we pivot our workplace and property strategy to succeed, to attract and retain the talent our organisation needs to be competitive? All these questions will be explored in future editions of the Future Workplace series, so make sure you subscribe to stay updated.

Whilst home working has provided some benefits, Zoom calls do not replace the ability for us to work together collaboratively. The office absolutely will be a key part of the workplace mosaic moving forwards, albeit slightly differently to the role it played pre-Covid. Hybrid working shows us the best of both worlds: using the home for focused work and providing the office for collaborative in person work. This approach will have profound changes in the way organisations approach workplace and portfolio strategy moving forwards; to make Hybrid work will require a radical rethink in terms of space management.

If the pandemic was an almighty storm cloud, perhaps with hindsight we can start to see the silver lining. For all our working lives, we have rushed from one place to another. Crammed ourselves onto packed underground trains, sprinting home to a waiting family, hoping to catch those last moments of the day before bedtime. Before being up again at 6AM to catch a flight out of the country and be away from people we care about for days or weeks at a time. Maybe the pandemic has shown us there is another way of working; one where we can be more productive with our time, more focused on the tasks we need to complete. Maybe we can spend a little less time travelling, and a little more time with those we care most about. Seems like a win/win to me.

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