Entering Tomorrow’s World: How COVID-19 Changed The Way We Work

In February 2020, before we entered our prolonged lockdown and back when COVID-19 was still something that only affected ‘other people’, I wrote an article for QUAY Magazine entitled ‘Business In The 2050s: How The Future Of Work Might Look’.

In the article, I suggested that remote working and working from home would become the ‘new normal’ by 2050. While it may seem that my article was prescient and prophetic, the truth is I was a long way from being correct – I thought it would take thirty years for these changes to happen, in fact it took only a matter of weeks.

‘There Are Decades Where Nothing Happens,
And Weeks Where Decades Happen’
– Vladimir Lenin

When the ‘stay at home’ order was imposed in March 2020, office workers in all industries had to adapt as quickly as possible in order to carry out their duties remotely. For many, this will have come as a shock, as a career spent commuting left them ill-equipped to work productively from their home environment and all the distractions it provides. Communicating effectively with other team members when working together on projects will also have presented substantial challenges.

Gradually though, most people adapted, and eventually thrived.

This was undoubtedly helped by the fact that technologies now exist to make remote working easier than ever before. High-speed internet, decent quality computers, video conferencing software, and project management tools have all been gamechangers in helping individuals across many locations to effectively collaborate and accomplish tasks to a high standard.

Once people had learned how to work from home, the next development was that many found they enjoyed working from home.

No longer needing to commute to the office every day, they could reclaim time that would otherwise have been spent sat in traffic.  This gave many people the chance to spend more time with family, look after pets, or engage in hobbies. Other benefits included saving money on transport costs and helping the environment by reducing carbon emissions.

For all these reasons then, and more, it’s not surprising that many people who began working from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic now wish to continue doing so.

For example, an August 2020 study by academics from Cardiff University and the University of Southampton found that 90% of workers would like to continue working from home in some form once the pandemic is over, while a March 2021 study by the University of Strathclyde revealed that 78% of respondents said they would prefer to work in the office two days or less per week once all COVID-19 restrictions are eased.

The Benefits To Business Of Home Working

It is not difficult to see how businesses have also benefitted from the shift towards remote working.

Firstly, as employers became more aware of the importance of employee wellbeing over recent decades, this in itself became a huge industry. Companies of all sizes invested time, energy, and considerable financial resources into ensuring their employees felt engaged, properly valued, and supported.

Of course, this was not done simply out of altruism on the part of employers – the business case for fostering a happy workforce proved difficult to ignore. For example, a 2014 study by economists at the University of Warwick found that happy employees were on average 12% more productive than unhappy ones.

Also, another study conducted in 2018 by researchers from the University of Tennessee found that in the period between 2003 and 2014, and when controlling for other factors, companies that were more employee-friendly:

‘Achieved better returns on assets and equity than their peers with lower employee-friendliness ratings. What’s more, the high achieving companies also scored above average for sales-to-assets ratios, the number of patents filed, and were below average in terms of expenditure.

Overall, the message seems clear, that if you treat employees well, this then creates a social contract whereby those employees work harder, tend to be more efficient, and generally strive to do more for the company that’s treating them so well.’

The study also found that more employee-friendly companies performed much better during and after the Great Recession of 2008, which suggests that ‘the power of a happy workforce provides a buffer even in the most severe of wider economic circumstances.’

In short, having happy employees is good for business, and any decent employer will know this.

It is a powerful positive consequence of the pandemic then, that employers having little choice but to allow their staff to work from home has, in general, been welcomed by these employees.

This is because the increased level of staff wellbeing that has resulted from team members working at home will almost certainly prove highly valuable to their employers in the near future, due to the significant boost in employee productivity that will likely occur.

Another immediately obvious benefit to businesses of remote working is the decreased need for office space in its traditional form.

For some companies, cutting back on office space can produce substantial savings. In central London for instance, premium desk space in a serviced office could cost over £1500 per month, meaning a team of ten people would incur costs of £15000+ every month, just to ensure everyone had a desk to work from. Meanwhile, at the upper end of the market for office space rented by the foot, the largest and priciest offices available are hired out for over £250,000 per year.

With numbers like these, it’s no surprise that companies are seeing the value in having more of their team work from home. In fact, by March 2021 the amount of vacant office space in London had increased by 75% over the past 12 months – a trend replicated across much of the UK, and indeed across much of the world.

Co-Working, Collaboration, And Coping With Distractions

But what happens to the remote workforce when the challenges of working from home start to bite?

For many, spending more time with partners, children, pets, or even just their favourite gadgets, offers ample opportunity to become distracted and see their productivity suffer. Plus, maintaining a work/life balance is important, and this too can become challenging when there is little separation between the two in terms of location.

It is for this reason that all across the UK people have converted garages and spare rooms into dedicated workspaces, while we have even seen a boom in sales of upmarket sheds, as wealthy homeworkers have installed sheds complete with insulation, double glazing, heating, and electricity into their gardens.

For example, a BBC report from February 2021 found that online shed retailer Waltons has seen a 300% rise in sales since the beginning of lockdown, while the Posh Shed Company in Herefordshire (whose sheds can cost up to £20,000) have had to take on three extra staff to meet the surge in demand.

But there will be many for whom these measures will be unfeasible, unaffordable, or unable to provide the required separation between work and home lives. For some, working from home will also have the added negatives of presenting fewer opportunities for networking and socialising with colleagues, contacts, and collaborators.

All these factors, and more, present an opportunity for another type of workspace to thrive. Namely, the co-working space, which can be seen as a kind of middle-ground option between traditional office environments and the homeworking lifestyle.

Co-working spaces offer employees, freelancers, and business owners the chance to better separate their work and home lives, to network and form collaborations with fellow professionals, and to escape the distractions that may be present at home – while not imposing upon people the pressure or the obligation to be at their desk for a set number of hours every workday.

Hiring a desk in a co-working or hotdesking space can also be inexpensive and highly flexible, as most workspaces will offer desks for rent by the hour, while 24/7 access options are usually available on higher-level plans, in case you need to have virtual meetings with people in a different time zone, or simply like to work earlier or later in the day than most.

It is for these reasons then, among many others, that co-working and hotdesking spaces could easily become more popular than ever in the post-pandemic world.

This development may occur across much of the planet, from each corner of the Earth to the other, and its hallmarks can in fact already be seen close to home, as right here in the QUAY Magazine offices plans are afoot to convert some of the unused space in our building into a co-working and hotdesking space for local professionals who are looking for an inexpensive place to work in a highly convenient town centre location.

Stay tuned for more news about this shortly!

Addendum - The Brave New Normal

While it may seem immodest to again refer approvingly to the article I wrote in February 2020 about how business in the 2050s might look, there are a couple of other ideas I raised in that article which have also entered mainstream awareness decades before I thought they would.

Namely, the concepts of the 4-day workweek and Universal Basic Income (UBI).

Pre-pandemic, these ideas were mostly debated by tweed-clad, chin-stroking, pipe-smoking, unwashed Professors of irrelevant subjects, but today they have reached the public consciousness.

For example, the 4-day workweek has recently received positive coverage in several mainstream media publications. And not just the ones that people merely pretend to read in order to seem clever, while never actually getting past the contents page (The Economist, The New Statesman, and Private Eye come to mind, for example), but ordinary, everyday tabloid newspapers such as The Daily Star, The Express, and The Daily Mail – all of which do get read by normal(ish) people.

Meanwhile, in August 2020 Germany began trialling UBI, giving 120 citizens €1200 per month every month for 3 years to measure the impact this has on their wellbeing, level of poverty, and ability to find work.

The economic devastation caused to the American economy as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has also led to successive US governments issuing cheques of up to $2000 to taxpaying citizens. Over the three rounds of these ‘stimulus’ payments, some individuals will have received up to $4000 in the form of cheques for $2000, $1400, and $600.

While not being a Universal Basic Income as it is commonly understood, due to the irregular payment schedule and means-testing involved in calculating how much each person receives, The Tax Foundation, a thinktank based in Washington DC, estimates that 93.6% of Americans are eligible to receive these cheques, which shows that although these substantial payments may not be universal, they are not far off.

Closer to home, furlough schemes whereby the government pays up to 80% of an employee’s salary have been introduced in many European countries. The size of these payments, combined with how long they have run for (the UK’s furlough scheme has recently been extended until the end of September 2021, for example) represent an enormous intervention on the part of Western governments into national economies, that would surely have been unthinkable before the COVID-19 pandemic.

These near-unprecedented actions have fuelled greater awareness of – and desire for – more radical options such as UBI, among politicians and the general public. For example, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party are both now committed to introducing a Universal Basic Income in the UK as part of their official party policies.

Also, in May 2021 it was announced that a Universal Basic Income scheme was to be trialled in Wales, while Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has previously said that the ‘time has come’ to introduce UBI to Scotland.

Support for bringing UBI to the UK has also come from hundreds of other prominent politicians across a wide range of political parties, as in October 2020 a letter to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, stating that UBI pilot schemes were urgently needed in the UK as the pandemic unleashed widespread economic disruption, was signed by more than 500 MPs, Lords, and local councillors.

Meanwhile, 32 councils including Liverpool, Brighton, Leeds, Norwich, and Belfast have campaigned to launch UBI pilots in their areas. The prospect of UBI pilot schemes has proved popular with those living in areas where the trials may happen, as surveys found that 69% of Welsh people supported the UBI trial taking place there, while 46% of the overall British public would support a UBI trial in their local area, with only 16% opposing.

Clearly then, the COVID-19 pandemic and the endless disruptions it has caused, has brought to the surface a series of bold new ideas for how we live and how we work.

Increased remote working has perhaps been the most tangible of these so far, but in the coming years the debates surrounding UBI, the 4-day workweek, and many other concepts which only a year ago would have seemed strange and bizarre, will likely proceed at pace, meaning that they may well be integrated into our daily routines far sooner than many (myself especially) predicted.

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