The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we work, with many companies implementing homeworking almost overnight, says Guy Osmond.
This sudden shift had a profound and lasting impact on work culture, office spaces, and work-life balance.
While remote work has provided employees with greater flexibility and autonomy, it has also presented challenges such as social isolation, and blurred the boundaries between work and personal life, making it more difficult to disconnect. For employers, it necessitated new policies and practices to reflect these changes.
So, three years out, what have we learned, and what will we take forward? How have our expectations and priorities shifted, and what may the future of the physical office look like?
Home and hybrid working
Driven by lockdown measures and facilitated by the advancement of digital technology, the rise of homeworking is one of the most fundamental changes we’ve seen in our workplaces. This ‘temporary measure’ has become a permanent fixture in many organisations, often aligned to the preferences of their employees. Many companies have developed flexible hybrid working policies, allowing employees to choose to work in the office or elsewhere, depending on their job responsibilities and personal preferences.
There are clear benefits including increased productivity, or at least the perception of it (as I discuss later in this piece), better work-life balance, and less commuting time. And, with fewer people to accommodate each day, organisations can take advantage of reduced costs, with many companies choosing to jettison some of their office space in recent years.
However, remote work also presents challenges, such as the potential for decreased social interaction and collaboration, blurred work-life boundaries, and potential impacts on mental health.
Employers have had to navigate these challenges by implementing strategies such as virtual team-building activities, setting clear expectations around work hours, and prioritising employee wellbeing.
More recently, I would argue that the shine has worn off homeworking for some, both employees and employers. First impressions are overturned by a more nuanced understanding of the challenges and benefits this way of working presents.
The question ‘what is productivity?’ is now being asked by thought leaders. While working from home might feel more productive for the individual, does that personal productivity always tally with organisational goals? A morning spent clearing an inbox, for example, might prompt a great sense of personal achievement, but has that time advanced the aims and success of the business?
The understanding of how hybrid working impacts communication and relationships has also shifted over time. While meetings and one-to-one calls can go ahead virtually, communication with the wider circles of a work network, which is much more dependent on serendipitous meetings and shared physical spaces, is less well served.
That lack of interaction beyond your immediate colleagues and managers can also dampen creativity, leaving people at risk of ‘echo chamber’ effect, where their own thinking is reinforced by their immediate team who share the same perspective, rather than those working in different areas or on different projects who might offer a different take.
While the widespread success of hybrid working is unquestioned, it is by no means a universal solution and individual needs must be a central consideration. Some employees are upping their office-based hours, recognising that some of the relationship building and communication that takes place there cannot be replicated, and to satisfy that very human craving for company. The idea of the office being somewhere for employees to be ‘alone-together’ is also gaining wider recognition.
The past three years have given us all a bank of experiential learning, and a deeper understanding of the multitude of factors at play. While I don’t doubt that hybrid working is here to stay, managing it effectively and accommodating the disparate needs of all employees is complex.
The office space reimagined
The move to hybrid work has also necessitated a rethink of office spaces. With far less people in at any one time, offices are getting smaller and/or being redesigned to better serve their shifted purpose.
The office is no longer a place where workers are “housed” for the 9-5. Instead, the modern office functions more like a magnetic hub, drawing colleagues together, with a focus on relationship building, and creative and collaborative work, all best suited to in-person interactions.
Rather than a desk-based or even hot-desking model, more companies are adopting activity-based working, where employees can choose where and how they work, based on their tasks and preferences.
As such, I have seen demand has risen for furniture and office design elements which can help support the four key working behaviours – collaboration, communication, concentration, and contemplation.
Rather than banks of desks, we’re seeing more break-out and touchdown spaces, which are much more heavily used, improved kitchens and canteens, maximising the opportunities to develop that vital social capital, as well as quiet spaces – silent pods, acoustic booths – alongside social and open plan spaces.
With so much flux, it’s difficult to predict how a space will be used over time, so flexible and configurable furniture which can be reviewed and redeployed is in favour. Mobile pods are becoming popular. These units, comprising a desk and seating, can be moved about on casters, used alone for a private workspace, or in combination, creating an enclosed meeting area for four or more people. Their acoustic properties also minimise sound travel – another essential in an open plan space.
Office furniture is having to work harder and smarter than ever with some very clever design innovations coming to market now which tick multiple boxes – flexibility, customisability, support, acoustic properties, and aesthetics too.
A culture shift
The seismic impact of Covid, and resulting move to homeworking, has doubtless impacted our priorities and reshaped expectations and norms in the workplace.
One of the most significant changes in work culture is the renewed focus on employee wellbeing and mental health support. The pandemic and the isolation and stresses of lockdown both took their toll and contributed to the growing awareness and understanding of the importance of mental health across society. This raised awareness has also enabled a more comprehensive understanding of neurodiversity, ADHD, menopause and other, previously ignored, considerations when optimising employee wellbeing.
Companies have responded to this need by prioritising employee wellbeing and creating holistic programs to support mental and physical health. For instance, mental health days, flexible schedules, and access to virtual counselling services have been added to existing ergonomics programmes, wellbeing-boosting movement and activities during the working day.
Finally, the pandemic has redefined expectations and norms around work-life balance, a concept which has more recently been re-imagined as work-life blending. Employees, freed from a nine to five working day followed by a commute, now have the flexibility to incorporate personal and family activities around their work commitments.
However, more flexibility and control over their work schedule can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it allows employees to better integrate work and personal life, but on the other there is the risk that a lack of clear boundaries can leave employees feeling that they are always “on.”
Employers are getting better at addressing this issue, with new policies and practices that support work-life balance, such as clear expectations around work hours, out of hours emails, flexible schedules, meeting-free days and respecting time off. This new way of working also demands robust boundary setting by employees, who have far more responsibility for managing their own time effectively.
Looking back, it’s abundantly clear that the pandemic has significantly and permanently changed the way we work.
To thrive in this new era of work, companies must prioritise employee wellbeing and mental health support, rethink office spaces to support key working behaviours whilst boosting corporate culture, and create policies and practices that support work-life balance. By doing so, they can attract and retain top talent, enhance productivity and innovation, and achieve better business outcomes.
Guy Osmond is the Managing Director of Osmond Ergonomics.
Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.