What will be the new ‘normal’ when the virus has been defeated?

That’s certainly a question very few can answer at the moment, as we all battle to ‘flatten the curve’ and get the upper hand on Covid-19. Work isn’t the priority for some; instead, our health – both physical and mental – is our utmost concern. It’s different for those on the frontline, however; they won’t yet have had a spare moment to consider how the coronavirus will change their job, their workplace or the way things are done in the months and years to come. 

We believe it unlikely that UK Plc will go back to what it was before the pandemic…unscathed, unchanged and unaware of what has happened across the land. 

Following the government’s order that, wherever possible, people should work from home, many employers and employees have had to adapt to new ways of working. Apps and technologies have changed the face of the workplace in the here and now: Zoom meetings, shared project management tools such as Trello, online learning apps…the list goes on. 

Perhaps the reason homeworking wasn’t as prevalent before now is the concern of leaders/managers that it’s more difficult to check on or control employees if they’re not sat within arm’s reach. After all, in a shared office, it’s easy to see who’s working and who’s slacking. The lack of a physical presence could open up all manner of opportunities for employees to ‘skive’ – couldn’t it? 

It depends. If you use the traditional measure of ‘output=hours worked’ you may well reject the concept of a workforce that carries out their role from home, because you can’t monitor the number of employees’ breaks or how they’re carrying out their work. And whilst some apps allow you to remotely measure the length of time an employee is logged in, that doesn’t necessarily mean your employee is actually sat, active, at their computer. 

The ‘output=hours worked’ measure needs to change, as does an employer’s mindset, for homeworking to be a success. ‘Output=productivity’ should be used instead. 

A recent study showed that home workers are, in fact, more productive than employees in the office. With no commute, there are more hours available in which to be productive; there are fewer distractions (NB: the study was carried out before the pandemic, and therefore does not account for children being at home due to schools being shut), and, said 62% of participants, the fear that they will not be seen as working as hard as their in-office colleagues becomes a huge motivator. 

Two-thirds of the employers who took part in the study reported that their home workers were indeed more productive than their employees working in the office, which begs the question of why home working has not been championed more before now.  

Employers need to let go of time being the measure of how much an employee contributes. It’s likely that this model is compromised in the office anyway – ask the employees of any medium to large workplace and they’ll be able to give the name of an ‘always busy doing nothing’ colleague or someone the rest of them metaphorically carry.  

Output should equal productivity. As long as targets are reached, deadlines are met, and quality work is completed, how and when this happens shouldn’t be important. Maybe being forced to adapt to home-working situations due to the current situation has enlightened many bosses to the cost savings, technologies and opportunities homeworking can bring. Given the extortionate rent required for office space in central/city locations, if fewer desks/workspaces were needed because a proportion of your staff worked from their home office, this would have a positive impact on outgoings.  

Now that working from home has been trialled by many employers, albeit begrudgingly in some cases, perhaps requests from employees to continue on this basis will be granted once the pandemic is over.  

We may see greater flexibility in how meetings are carried out in the future, with technology playing its part to include attendees not actually present in the room. We now know that training can be delivered effectively via webinar; it doesn’t necessarily need the hire of huge conference rooms. No savvy employer would ignore the implementation of such ideas on a permanent basis knowing they represent significant cost savings.  

The pandemic will have given many leaders the chance to objectively look at how their company runs, and what they can take from this experience going forward. Change may have been enforced by the virus, but they will have found out that change can sometimes be good. It’s actually complacency that costs money. 

On the flipside 

After the weeks (maybe months) we’ll have spent in relative lockdown, we’ll likely crave human contact and interaction when we’re free. Maybe employees who thought they would like to work from home will have a different take on it after trying it out. Given that it takes discipline and motivation, that it can be isolating (particularly at the moment), that it can be uncomfortable, if working from a kitchen table or with a laptop on your knees (health and safety practices in physical workplace ensures good posture, etc., but we don’t all have a H&S representative at home), maybe some workers feel that working from home is not what it’s cracked up to be…who knows? 

We expect future workplaces will continue to use a blended approach to working, as it’s difficult to go back to old practices once you’ve found a better way. If nothing else, thpandemic has shown employers that, if something has to be done, we can and will find a way to make it happen.