Office life will never be the same again. Here's what comes next

Executives who might have been wary of flexible working in the past have now seen the benefits of home working. There's no going back to how things were before.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Most of us have spent the past few months working from home. Rather than the odd day here or there, most people – apart from those fulfilling essential roles – have logged in and worked remotely. The great work-from-home experiment has by and large produced positive results in challenging circumstances. 

But what happens next?

For Andrew Hewitt, analyst at researcher Forrester, the impact will – at least in part – be a permanent exodus from the office. Businesses might have been reticent to allow staff to work from home in the past, but that's no longer the case.

"This outbreak will naturally spur more remote working in the future as people become more comfortable with the arrangement and see that most people actually are more productive when they're working from home as opposed to coming into the office," says Hewitt. "If there's a positive impact of the coronavirus, it's that acceptance of work from home will become much more mainstream."

SEE: COVID-19: A guide and checklist for restarting your business (TechRepublic Premium)

That new level of approval has been a long time coming. While laws, like the UK's Flexible Working Regulations from 2014, gave employees the legal right to request forms of flexible working, home working has remained – up until the last few months – the exception rather than the norm.

Research suggests that, prior to the coronavirus outbreak, only about 5% of the UK's 33 million workers worked mainly from home. Despite the regulations, it is relatively easy for employers to refuse a request for home working on one of the prescribed grounds outlined in the legislation, and employees have little opportunity for recourse.

As such, presenteeism ruled: workers needed to be seen in the office to ensure they were working. Now, of course, everything has changed. As Wincanton CIO Richard Gifford recognises, the lockdown-enforced shift to remote working is a total reversal of the usual approach in most big companies until now.

"Our HR policy was written in a way that previously, if you wanted to work at home, you could, but you'd have to come in and give some good reasons and a decision would be made. Now we're saying, 'you will work at home and you need to give me some good reasons why you need to be in the office'. So, it's a complete turnaround," he says.

Gifford has had to maintain a limited on-site presence to manage his firm's on-premise data centre during the outbreak. Yet the vast majority of the firm's 4,500 office-based are working at home – and the result, aided by a solid VPN and a bunch of cloud applications, is likely to be a long-term shift in the perception of remote working.

The new model is working says Gifford: "I'm sure somebody could cite some areas of productivity where things aren't as good as they used to be, but in the main things are actually pretty good and we're running the organisation remotely. So this is a model that, by and large, we intend to stick with."

There are many reasons why this shift makes sense. In normal times, workers spend hours a week commuting. Being trusted to complete your job flexibly for some part of the working week creates a sense of wellbeing. It's nice to be able to go for a run, to pick up the kids from school or to watch a bit of TV with your lunch.

Employers would argue that the pull of daytime TV and online gaming is the reason why workers can't be trusted to work remotely. Yet surveys show that such fears are often groundless: four in five office workers (79%) believe the lockdown has proven they can work effectively from home.

David Bishop, CTO at ecommerce website lovethesales.com, is another executive who's been pleased by the positive impact of remote working. While the firm's directors were nervous as to how they would maintain communication and company culture in a virtual setting, he says the reality is that everyone has risen to the challenge.

"Given how well it seems to be going so far, I honestly wouldn't be surprised if we didn't continue with 'work-from-home Wednesdays' or something going forward. One positive is that I've never had so much clean washing," he says.

SEE: Return to the office: Now CIOs face their next big challenge

When done right, flexibility results in a happier, healthier, and more productive workforce, suggests the Harvard Business Review. It helps attract the best employees, and makes them want to stick around. Replacing valued workers costs time, money and productivity. Give people the opportunity to plan their time as they wish and they're less likely to leave.

Home working could also help businesses to save money. 

"It costs a lot of money to lease office space. Why don't we save the money and reduce the size and make it a much more flexible affair? I think this period of enforced remote working will lead to a permanent change for a lot of companies," says David Allison, global head of IT and Quantum First Minerals.

Perhaps even more crucially – and at a time when IT spending is likely to drop by 5% globally this year – much of the investment to support home working has already been completed. The rapid response to COVID-19 required an investment in software and hardware. Supporting remote working in the longer term is one way to make that sunk investment pay.

For Dylan Roberts, chief digital and information officer (CDIO) at Leeds City Council, there's no going back. His digital services team got over 7,000 laptops ready-to-go in just three days. More than 10,000 of the council's employees are now working from home – and upwards of 7,500 of those employees are now able to work online at the same time

"The tipping point for me is that far more people will have been forced to embrace this way of working and discovered it's not so bad and comes with some advantages so will want to do it in future. I also hope this means that users will become more adept at using technology, which leads to smoother working and less support issues for the IT team," says Roberts.

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