The working from home mask could be slipping: What does the future hold for the workplace?

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As the vaccination programme continues to move at breakneck speed, Business Leader looks at the future of work, returning to the office and whether productivity was boosted or harmed by the great working from home ‘experiment’. To do this, we spoke to a panel of industry experts.

What has been interesting about the shift in working patterns over the last year is that it is hard to describe it as truly remote working – it’s more like pandemic working, where many people have actually been forced to work from home, rather than a well thought out flexible working process.

This makes it difficult to assess its impact, but one thing is for sure – much has been learnt from this ‘experiment’ in how we work and many who previously advocated for just office working have also seen the benefits of homeworking.

Harriet Murray Jones is a lawyer at Harrison Clark Rickerbys and, interestingly, her firm started conducting a huge piece of research into the future of work pre-pandemic in 2019 and re-ran the research at the end of 2020.

Harriet comments on what they found: “When we ran the survey in 2019, only three per cent said they felt homeworking had a negative impact on their wellbeing but when we held it again in 2020, one in five people said they felt it was having a negative impact on their mental health.”

This snapshot of the findings does potentially show that whether people have enjoyed working from home has been skewered by the pandemic.

To delve deeper into the research, Business Leader spoke to Rob Vivian – who is CEO at Pure Comms, to see how his business has found this change to working patterns.

He said: “We’re a tech business, so allowing people to work from home and giving people the tools to do this is easy for us. But culturally, and in terms of how we deliver service to our clients, it has had an impact that has not always been positive. We found that email – the tool of delegation – was being used more, when before we would have gone over to somebody’s desk and got things moving quicker.

“For our business, I have seen people’s effectiveness start to wane too and I have seen an impact on our staff’s mental wellbeing, and they haven’t broadly enjoyed working from home.

“But I also must understand that being in the office five days a week will not work for everybody, so I feel a hybrid approach is likely in the future and I am seeing lots of firms working towards that model.

“There is also a point to be made about where you work because for those that commute to work and have to endure long hours on the train, it’s been shown that they could be more productive working from home.”

George Dexter, who is CEO at Armour Home, also feels the novelty of working from home is starting to wear off.

He explains: “In March it seemed like a dream come true for many, but I feel that after the second lockdown, the novelty started to wear off. I feel there are issues with working from home around loneliness and social interaction.

“I do also feel that training a new employee remotely is an issue – how can they learn as there is only so much Zoom you can do. I would also like to say that as an international business it is important that I am meeting our partners in Asia and shaking their hands. Zoom just does not cut it for this.

“My final point is that I do not feel the office is dead at all and if I were a pension fund with money in real estate, I wouldn’t push the panic button yet. I’m optimistic that people will go back to offices but also understanding that there has been a change and there will be more flexibility.”

Jonathan Richards, who is the CEO of Breathe HR, also believes that the pandemic is eating away at the culture of many businesses.

“I feel that getting people back into mindset of working outside of a pandemic is important, otherwise we’re going to see work cultures ebb away. I would say we are doing less flexible working now than we previously were too – as this is pandemic working.

“We need to free up people to be truly flexible, with some in and some out of the office. I believe that people will go to offices for the messy, fun and creative stuff that builds culture and home could be the space for getting your head down and getting work completed.”

Inclusivity in decision making

What will be an important conversation for businesses now – is what happens next, should the government roadmap be executed successfully, and restrictions lifted.

Yetunde Hofmann believes that whatever decisions are made, they must include everybody.

She says: “Major decisions on the future of work tend to be made by people who live in houses with three bedrooms or more, and those that are impacted by those decisions are often in the lower social economic classes and going to work gives them a break. You need to include everybody in the decisions and think carefully about the impact on everybody in your business.”

Has homeworking solved the productivity puzzle?

The UK has also historically had an issue with productivity, compared to other developed economies and some pundits have argued that adopting a Swedish model, that allows for more flexibility and less hours in the office, could be the answer.

So, what impact has the shift away from being based at the office had on productivity?

Richards comments: “The UK has a productivity gap and it’s no big surprise that the pandemic hasn’t helped that. But the situation we have now is unusual and it is difficult to use as a benchmark when it comes to measuring productivity. I feel we need to get people settled back into the office, but leaders will know what is best for their team and whether that’s office working, hybrid or homeworking.”

Brendan Street, who is Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health, agrees that measuring productivity during the pandemic has been difficult.

He says: “We’re trying to work from home during a pandemic and I think the results around productivity could be skewed from that. Remote working can increase job satisfaction and work life balance according to a recent report we carried out and office has been called an interruption factory. But the risks are isolation and burnout, and the research shows that there is a Goldilocks zone of around two and half days in the office and the rest at home and this may point to the optimum productivity.”

What about the future for training?

Key to boosting productivity is training and equipping teams with the skills and knowledge they need to achieve growth and scale.

But what is the best approach, is it in person or does remote training work just fine? Vicky Sylvester is the CEO of Acacia Training and she says: “You can talk about whether online or face to face is better but what businesses need to focus on is impact and the needs of the learner. We all have different learning styles, so it is about delivering what is best of the end user.

“On the proliferation of remote training due to the pandemic, one issue it has raised is digital poverty and everybody being able to access the internet and the technology they need. But on the flipside, it has also increased accessibility for those that are more comfortable at home or have a disability; or need to train at home due to other commitments.

“Finally, whether it is remote or in person, the worse type of training is mandatory training that you do every year and it never changes and it just ticks a box.”

Have we opened the talent pool?

To conclude the debate around productivity and where people work, we looked at recruitment and whether the move to homeworking had made it more difficult to recruit the skills businesses need or whether it had opened new possibilities?

Michael Stoke is Head of Employment at Harrison Clark Rickerbys and says that he has found some positives.

He explains: “When recruiting, one aspect that is much easier is that you can recruit from a much wider talent pool and you don’t have to be tied to one particular office or geographic location. Being a solicitor in your bedroom or study is now possible but there is a downside in that you may not meet your team face to face as quickly.

“The pandemic has made us really look at how we recruit and who is in our talent pool, but I do have a concern that some employers may still be in an emergency mindset and not looking at the wider pool of talent and recruiting more local because they feel they need somebody they can trust and know if they will be working from home, but this can restrict outlook and mean they miss out on talent.”

Steve Preston, who is the founder and Managing Director of Heat Recruitment, also feels there have been some benefits found from this new approach to working.

He says: “This has been one of the biggest shifts we’ve ever seen in the recruitment sector. Video calls have been around for a while, but it is now mainstream and what this means for recruitment is that, ideally, you would want to look somebody in the eye but talking to them via Zoom isn’t much different – as you can still have a conversation and get to know them.

“It’s the probationary period and the early days they spend in your business that will determine whether they’re the right person or not – and that’s not a new challenge in recruitment. You can also see more candidates now in a day and we are seeing that the 50/50 candidates are getting more of a chance because it is easier to book in a second or third interview. The talent pool has definitely widened too, and the network is now global, and this can only be a good thing.”

Mike Beesley is a veteran of the recruitment world and an entrepreneur that has started several businesses in the space. His take is more pragmatic about the benefit that virtual can bring.

He says: “People are now hiring but the problem you have is that it is all done remotely, and recruitment processes are being extended because of this. I feel you are missing that physical human interaction and chemistry which is something you get by being in a room with somebody.

“I also feel it is an issue that people are starting work having never physically met their team members. You also have to note that not everybody has the privilege of having a garden and a nice house and the office can play an important role for them.”

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