The revolution has started. The last two years have left a lasting legacy and the workplace will never be quite the same again.
Fewer than one in five office workers have returned, according to research by Centre for Cities, and a survey of Britain’s biggest employers found that the vast majority of firms had no plans to compel staff to return to the office. People have realised the pointlessness of commuting for hours every day simply to sit in a different environment or have a short meeting.
Only four years ago, when I was working as a PR consultant, I nearly lost a client because I suggested that we hold a meeting online. They cancelled the contract and only restored it when I hastily backtracked and agreed to pump carbon into the atmosphere via a seven-hour round trip for a one-hour appointment. Now such attitudes seem positively prehistoric.
When a friend’s company suggested to a recruitment consultant that they encourage a wider pool of applicants by offering home working three days a week, the recruitment consultant laughed. He explained that three days a week is now the absolute bare minimum that companies need to offer in order to attract the most sought-after applicants. This revolution is the single biggest issue being discussed in HR circles at the moment and it’s a revolution which will bring many benefits, but it is not without its drawbacks.
Moving away from city life
This may be the death knell for cities, but for years we have talked about the ‘brain drain’ from the countryside. Property prices out here in sleepy Moray have gone crazy and it’s not just the rural north-east. Cash-rich city dwellers are realising that you can live in the countryside with good schools, clean air, no traffic and all the conveniences of a metropolis thanks to next-day delivery and TV streaming services.
There will be another revolution in the workplace too. Those of us who are managers will have to up our game. Now that we can’t see colleagues at their desks, we will have to monitor performance more accurately. This is an opportunity for managers to focus on real results rather than perceived performance.
For years unconscious bias has dominated the workplace: staff who share common interests with the boss have found it easy to climb the ladder whilst others from different backgrounds (often women, LGBTQ+ and ethnic minorities) were left behind. But there is also a danger of increasing social divides as those who do manual jobs or who struggle with literacy become more and more distanced from the white collar workers in an online world.
How will we move forward?
What is also developing is a new workplace etiquette. A lunchtime break to walk the dog has already become an acceptable reason to be unavailable, but it is still frowned upon to have children in the background, even though they’re less distracting than the foghorn who used to sit opposite you.
Employers are already allowing more flexible working so that parents can do the school run, but in return there may be a blurring of the working day and, along with it, an expectation that you’re always contactable. The work-life balance may not improve.
Will junior staff pick up the same tips, tricks and social skills when they no longer mix with more senior staff in an office, or is it old fashioned to think that young people who have grown up in a digital world need these social skills anyway?
What is perhaps surprising is that, after being cooped up with the family for months, we want more of it. Home working will suit some but not others. It allows more time with the family, savings on commuting costs and, usually, better snacks. But the social interactions that a workplace provides are also essential to general wellbeing. I’m not ready for full time home working just yet. I like a reason to put on a nice outfit and share gossip with co-workers whilst waiting for the kettle to boil.
The house isn’t so tidy, the kids’ homework gets forgotten and we’ve already had a take-away this week but at least my partner no longer greets me in the morning by saying, ‘leisurewear AGAIN darling?’.
Eleanor Bradford is a former BBC Scotland Health Correspondent and now works in communications in the education sector