What will a workplace look like once Covid-19 lockdowns are eased?
We will sit at least 2m apart, there will be no squeezing in the extra person at the lunch table or in a conference room, and forget hot desking
Whether working from home has been a productivity and wellness-enhancing revelation or a burden to be shouldered with stoic resolve depends on your job, your home set-up and your personality. It may even depend on the day. But just as air travel changed beyond recognition after 9/11, traditional offices appear set to become safer, cleaner and less pleasing environments too.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is preparing to unveil detailed guidance on Sunday for bringing Britain out of lockdown. Each employment sector will have to adapt in different ways but leaked drafts of his plans suggest that those of us who work in conventional offices will find they look and feel very different in the coronavirus era.
One noticeable change will be proximity to other workers; we’ll sit at least 2m apart. There will be no squeezing in the extra person at the lunch table or in a conference room. Forget hot desking. The use of printers and whiteboards will be frowned upon. Tape or paint will mark off lanes and close off desks to enforce distancing and spacing, even in elevators. Sanitiser stations will be everywhere. We’ll arrive and leave at staggered times, in single file, from separate entrances if possible.
Some will happily accept these curtailments to be back in the physical fray of office life, and out of their own kitchens and living rooms. For this group, there’s no substitute for face time with colleagues and the energy an office brings.
Others have found remote working saves time and energy on commuting, while it has the happy advantage of lessening your chances of infection. Many of these people feel it also provides fewer distractions and a better life balance without sacrificing productivity (although others have found all hope of balance or delineation between work and personal time has gone out the window).
The “WFH” fans will take a dim view of the brave new workplace. I can bounce between the opposing views depending on the day and task, but probably lean towards thinking that a remote-working option balanced with plenty of office time is optimal. That seems confirmed by studies that show workers are happiest when they have some control over their environment.
A recent Gallup poll of at-home workers in the US found more than half wanted to continue to work remotely as much as possible, although the number dropped to 53% from 62% the longer their spell of remote working continued. Workers in finance, technology, media, insurance and professional services were most likely to prefer remote working more than those in education, retail, construction and transport.
What’s more surprising is how positively managers view the experience, with more than half saying they’ll allow employees to work remotely more often. The result may be more regional offices, less business travel (if you have any doubt about that, read my colleague Chris Bryant’s column on post-pandemic flying) and more Zoom meetings.
There may be other benefits to the change. When we’re in the office, we may value our relationships with colleagues a bit more than in the days before Covid-19. Given that many women take career breaks because of their employer’s dogmatic rigidity on working practices rather than any desire for a long pause, a new flexibility may prove beneficial to women. It may help men become more engaged in parenting and home life.
In the UK, remote working has been increasing in recent years, although it still only applied to 5% of the country’s workforce before this period of lockdowns. That’s likely to change given the range of jobs that can be done remotely, and the government’s need to manage the flow of people using mass transit systems such as London’s Tube.
If Britain follows a similar strategy to Ireland’s (announced last week) and responds to the growing pressure from business leaders to provide return dates, workers with very little contact in their offices could be back at work before the end of June, while others would return in the second half of July. But Johnson will probably ask those who can work from home to keep doing so. That would make sense. His “stay at home” message has been so successful that many Britons are reluctant to return to work environments.
Still, the reopening plans will also create confusion, and employers demanding clarity are unlikely to get it. As prescriptive as it sounds, the new guidance will still leave a lot up to interpretation, sprinkling in phrases like “where possible”. Britain’s trade unions are already pressing for clearly mandated safety measures. Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, has criticised the consultation documents as too vague and is calling for a “national safety standard”.
I haven’t walked around the City of London since our team was sent home in March, but I picture miles of empty offices and deserted streets, normally the working home of some 522,000 professionals, who emerge from Underground stations each morning, fill gleaming buildings and patronise the local bars, gyms and restaurants. Worst of all is thinking of Bloomberg’s recently built, prize-winning headquarters standing largely empty. But just as people got used to new rules for flying after 9/11, I suspect we’ll be back to sharing space with colleagues eventually. It’s just going to be different.
“I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them,” said the character Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) in the finale of the NBC sitcom The Office. Don’t we all.
• Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.