Coronavirus has changed life as we know it – from our shopping habits to how we connect with others, to the way we work. I don’t need a crystal ball to tell you, things won’t ever be quite the same again.
As we emerge from a second nationwide lockdown, it is clear a wholesale return to the office isn’t going to happen anytime soon – if ever.
As we have already seen, businesses who moved too quickly, ushering back their workers in their droves, found themselves scrambling to reverse those plans just weeks later as infection rates predictably resurged.
Thanks to our great people, investment in the right tech and an established flexible working culture, here at BGL, we were able to move seamlessly to full-scale remote working. It took just two weeks to get more than 2,500 colleagues working from home, including those based at our contact centres.
But getting back to the office is happening far more gradually because it’s appropriate that, until a vaccine is available, we proceed with caution and keep colleague safety as our absolute number one priority.
Across UK offices, physical modifications have been necessary to protect people and adhere to social distancing requirements. Signs, one-way systems, perspex screens, automatic doors, better ventilation and more partitions are among the many controls that have been built into workplaces. Then there are the operational changes; staggered working hours and lunch breaks, PPE and the regular deep cleaning required to keep people safe.
Vast buildings accommodating 1,000 people plus at a single time and open plan layouts, just aren’t feasible anymore and with many chief executives facing a need to cut costs, I can see why some have started by reviewing their office space needs.
Advocating a flexible approach
A recent survey of 50 of the country’s biggest employers discovered that most have no plans to return all staff to the office full-time, instead favouring a flexible approach.
Many of our colleagues have said they would prefer to work from home most of the time. Not only are they more productive thanks to fewer interruptions, they’re also making financial savings and more importantly, gaining more family time due to no, or very little, commuting.
We’ve also seen changes in behaviour, as working from home is a good leveller – flattening perceived hierarchies, encouraging people to be their authentic selves as they feel comfortable in their own environment.
But it’s not perfect. I’m acutely aware, for some, working from home seems relentless and isolating. And I have heard experiences from some of our colleagues who are sharing flats and think working from home is nothing short of a nightmare, so it’s important when carving out plans for the future that businesses engage with their colleagues and don’t apply a one-size-fits-all approach. Let’s not forget, at the height of the pandemic, only 48 per cent of people were homeworking and there are always some roles which need to be office-based.
Staying connected in a remote world
Working from home - or ‘living at work’ - has its drawbacks. Some find it hard to switch off and delineate between home and work. It’s therefore vital businesses adapt their approach to homeworking, paying close attention to onboarding, mentoring, health and wellbeing and significantly amplifying company values across the board to strengthen cohesion and avoid an office-homeworker split.
Having the right tech has made the biggest difference to our colleagues’ ability to work from home effectively. Collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams and Slack came into their own during lockdown and cloud-based systems enabled tech teams to support remote workers who were experiencing technical issues. It’s also enabled online workshops, meet-ups, after-work drinks and even cream teas! Indeed, in the beginning, some people reported feeling more connected and engaged, thanks to more frequent, clear communications but is it sustainable? It’s how we stay connected in a remote world longer-term that will be the challenge most businesses face.
The power of face-to-face
It’s hard to replicate the energy that is generated when you gather innovative people together. I know the people I have spoken with who have returned to our offices are really enjoying the experience of seeing their colleagues again. I believe the need to come together as human beings, to converse, learn, collaborate will prevail and offices will be adapted accordingly. We need to be together to have those discussions, make key decisions and it’s really hard to have a close connection with people without seeing them some of the time.
Pre-vaccine, we will increasingly see offices as collaboration hubs where colleagues come for part of their working week for specific meetings or workshops to carry out business critical activity collectively. Post-vaccine, I can see more hybrid-working – finding the right balance between working from home and working from the office. To what degree, will depend on people’s roles and their preferences but at BGL we believe a 50/50 split is about the right place to be if we want to mix flexibility with preservation and evolution of our valuable culture.
So, it’s definitely not the end of the office – but it is undeniably a watershed moment. It’s crucial businesses engage colleagues to determine the right balance between office and homeworking and it will take some time to bottom out the processes and routines that work best in each environment and the systems we need to put in place to deliver the optimal outcome for BGL , our colleagues and our customers. More than ever, the key for every business right now is being flexible as it ultimately makes us more resilient to whatever the future may present us with.