OFFICE POLITICS? – Remote working in a post COVID-19 world

Lynne Brooke is a solicitor with a wide knowledge of corporate and commercial law with a particular emphasis on SMEs and Social benefit. In this Blog he writes about the effect of COVID19 on the working environment and the future of offices.

As we enter a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic where business is being encouraged to re-open their offices, are we about to lose a real opportunity to revolutionise the way we work?

The issue of remote working is not new.  It is addressed in E F Schumacher’s thesis ‘Small is Beautiful’ first published in 1973.  Schumacher could see impending globalisation and proposed using technology to ‘bring into existence millions of new workplaces’ outside of the cities.

Small is Beautiful is now feasible because technology is advanced enough to enable remote working on the basis of distributed networks.

As we battle our way through the COVID-19 pandemic a debate has arisen about whether post COVID-19 it is better to go back to the office or to work remotely.

Leaving aside the restrictions and constrictions of our current situation the underlying point of discussion is whether the creation of larger operations in one or several large spaces, is the best way to carry on business or whether better results can be achieved where the business is carried on, on a distributed network basis?

Before COVID-19 (BC) there were two distractions from the underlying argument – two systems that, it was suggested, could lead to a harder working, more effective and more profitable workforce:

  • Hot-desking, where multiple workers use a single work station or work-space at different times
  • Co-working, where small units of a business share office space and infrastructure with units from other businesses.

Both systems are fundamentally the same, based on squeezing more people into a smaller space believing that they can be more productive and that there is some miraculous synergy that increases effectiveness and well-being as a result of conversations at the water cooler or shuffling up to colleagues to discuss an issue.

Then the pandemic occurred, making a virtue out of necessity.  It has not been possible to go into the office, large or small, and many people have had to work remotely.  This has introduced a new dimension possibly beginning the realisation of the Schumacher principle because technology has reached a stage where working remotely can be effective.

BC, 1.7 million people worked mainly from home in the UK. That was about 5% of the workforce of 33 million.

BC the facts were that:

  • 30% of the working population described themselves as unhappy at work.
  • 40% felt that they were neglecting other aspects of their life because of work
  • 27% felt depressed, 34% felt anxious and 58% felt irritable
  • Nearly two thirds of employees experienced a negative effect on their personal life such as a lack of personal development, poor home life and physical and mental health issues
  • Stress accounted for nearly half of all working days lost.

Over the past 4 months, millions more have joined remote working and have created a work-space in their home.  Now more than 30% work remotely. A number of surveys of UK businesses over the last few months confirm the benefits of working remotely:

  • Flexible hours and working
  • Better work life balance
  • Greater motivation
  • Better levels of efficiency and productivity
  • Lower levels of absence, sickness and stress
  • Improved customer/client service

The majority of remote workers are more productive and more communicative. Communication is actually more regular and efficient.  How often have you been in office meetings which are unnecessary, too long, unfocused and where people don’t communicate? Video conference meetings tend to be more sharply focused, quicker and, surprisingly perhaps, more collegial.

It is clear that remote working can result in a better quality of life and better work/life balance with the person still being part of a team and part of the overall enterprise. In addition, the cost of time and travel has been eliminated.

Schumacher suggested that the three things people most want are to be creatively productive, to render service and to act in accordance with their moral impulses. Good work life balance helps people achieve those and benefits both themselves and the business in which they work.

We could be at the dawn of a new era for businesses and for employee relations. And yet…government policy is pushing us back into the office. Could that policy be not a necessity but rather a political act aimed at restoring vitality to the commercial property sector?

Could the move back to the office be counterproductive to people’s wellbeing and therefore productivity?

Business has an opportunity to boost its bottom line and improve its relationship with the workforce by harnessing current technology to take advantage of the benefits of remote working and to build a nationwide (and global) distributed network of remote working employees. Remote working now means that we have a method where the principles of ’Small is Beautiful’ can be achieved for the benefit of both business and its workforce. Let’s take advantage of that and build our business not around commercial real estate but around people.

The Brooke Consultancy is a law firm and business consultancy offering Business Advice in the Round. We help businesses and individuals prosper. Click here to contact us.

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