COVID-19 has accelerated the need for flexible work environments. With the gradual relaxation of lockdown and social distancing measures, companies have slowly begun returning to offices. But what does this mean for employees? Will we enter into the future of work or revert to "business as usual"?
Goodbye, home office?
Now the UK economy is gradually picking up again: shops are allowed to open, and production has resumed. After several weeks in lockdown, many employees are apparently longing for their pre-COVID work life. In a study by the career portal Stepstone, 80% of employees surveyed said that they would like to return to work soon. Does this mean the ‘new normal’ is now over as we transition back to office-based work? What does the future of work look like and has it changed at all?
The consequences of digitisation
The pandemic has irrevocably impacted the future of work. Even if the consequences can’t quite be predicted yet, the first signs of COVID-19’s legacy are already emerging. Companies who were previously critical or wary of remote working have now found that employees are not only engaged and happy when working from home but are often more productive. Some business leaders have already announced plans to potentially offer more flexibility for staff.
Office, remote working, or both?
Though some employees are looking forward to returning to the office, more than 60% would prefer to continue to have the option of remote working, according to the afore mentioned Stepstone study. Because of this, flexible working is likely to become more commonplace. Return to normality in small steps The desire to return to work as soon as possible may, in some cases, also have economic reasons. Many employees are worried about their job security or face financial bottlenecks due to short-term work. Returning to ‘business as usual’ could give them more security. Others are faced with the challenge of balancing childcare with work, which might make returning to the office more appealing.
Companies will be faced with the challenge of numerous government-mandated occupational health and safety requirements. This may mean that not all employees can return to the office at the same time, as teams can only be on site in rotation.
Chatting with colleagues at the coffee machine is likely to remain impossible as some companies lack appropriate kitchen space. In-person meetings in large groups will also need to shift to virtual or online environments. On the other hand, contact protocols and regular disinfection will probably continue to be part of our everyday work lives for a while, meaning ‘business as usual’ is still a long way off.
What is ‘New Work’?
New Work represents a shift towards a new, more flexible, future-oriented form of employee engagement with the potential to take greater account of the needs and skills of employees. On one hand, it takes advantage of the benefits brought about by new technology. It also delivers the productivity required by business owners.
The hallmarks of this new workplace will likely be:
- Flexible working and the overhaul of standardised core working hours
- Virtual working via video meetings and collaboration tools
- Work-life balance and work-life blending, i.e. fluid boundaries between work and leisure time
- Reduction of hierarchical structures and greater involvement of employees in decision-making
The implementation of New Work demands a comprehensive rethink from companies and workers alike. But many of the methods that are being used have already been put into practice in recent weeks, so won’t come as a complete surprise. Executives have been removed from control to a certain extent, and video conferencing has almost become part of everyday work since the COVID-19 outbreak.
All this will influence our work in the future. It has been a success during the crisis, often without advance notice and especially for working parents, who have juggled both work and family commitments on a daily basis. If new forms of work are implemented in a planned manner in the future, all sides can benefit. The crisis has revealed several opportunities to set a new course for the future of work.
If you don't want to return to an office-based working environment, now might be a good time to lay the foundation with your boss regarding new working methods and locations (either at home, the office or a mix of both).