What Comes Next: How coronavirus has changed the way we work forever

Remember going to work?

The little rituals of your commute; the morning coffees, queues for the bus, frantic emails as you snatch pockets of WiFi at every tube station.

Colleagues, hot-desking, tea-runs, after-work-drinks, staying too late, arriving too early. It all seemed so static, so permanent, so deeply entwined into the very fabric of our lives, just a few short months ago.

For those of us not on the frontlines of this global pandemic, those of us with the privilege of having a job we can do from home – work as we know it has completely changed over the last two months.

We have carved out makeshift work spaces within our homes, and are finding that so many of the things we once thought had to be done in an official work environment, can actually be done anywhere. Turns out, loads of those meetings really could have been emails.

As social distancing perseveres even as lockdown begins to ease, businesses are beginning to grapple with the idea of a returning workforce. What will it look like? How will it work? And do we even want it to be the same?

But beyond the logistical changes – more working from home, more space between desks, fewer physical meetings, less travel – there are bigger cultural and cognitive shifts at play.

Employees and employers alike have been given a taste of a different way of doing things. They have been shown that alternative ways of operating, of making money, of forging a career, are possible. And it is expanding our capacity to imagine how we want work to feature within our lives.

Long-term working from home

Since lockdown began, we have had hot take after hot take about WFH.

How it’s harder to be productive at home, the draining nature of endless Zoom meetings, some even complaining that they miss commuting.

But for most, these early grumblings were merely teething problems as we all adjusted to this radical shift in how we work.

In fact, the majority of workers in the UK say they are happy to continue working from home throughout lockdown, and more than half say they would like to work from home more often when lockdown ends.

James Hirst, COO and co-founder of Tyk, is a long-term advocate of flexible working.

‘The lockdown has shown across multiple industries that workers do not have to be confined to the traditional office environment to produce their best work,’ says James.

James says his business has been ‘remote by default’ since they were founded in 2014. He lets employees work from wherever they want, when they want. 

‘We’ve found it has really benefited our employees, giving them the flexibility to work around important life commitments, as well as our business, as it’s allowed us to recruit globally,’ James explains. ‘This means we can support clients across different time zones.

‘I expect remote working to become the norm for many of us in a post Covid-19 world, as most organisations will have seen the benefits of adopting a more flexible approach to working practices.’

As well as the potential for a wider pool of employable talent, widespread working from home could also lead to a happier, healthier workforce.

Cutting out time spent on commuting means people have more time for exercising, eating healthier, socialising and maintaining relationships. This all plays a big part in the overall well-being of employees – cutting the risk of burnout and mental illness, which we know is a pervasive problem for work forces across a wide range of industries.

But there are some challenges with the idea of long-term working from home. For starters, the lack of human contact and team interaction could have an impact on morale, enthusiasm and a sense of unity.

Jon Wilson, CEO of Totaljobs, says that companies need to find ways to continue to support and communicate with employees. He says this is vital to cultivate a sense of ‘cohesion and belonging’.

He told Metro.co.uk: ‘Our research reveals that one in four people feel more loyal to their company as a result of their response to Covid-19, demonstrating the importance of Corporate Social Responsibility and company action in creating a strong employer brand.

‘It’s more important than ever that companies are transparent with their staff, responding to their aspirations, while building a sense of purpose to motivate and retain talent.’

New-look workplaces

Working from home isn’t a walk in the park for everyone – for some, it will simply never be possible to turn their home into a place where they can get work done efficiently. Maybe they have a lack of functional space, young children or elderly relatives, or a difficult home environment.

But once we come through this global crisis, we’re not all going to be at home forever. There will be phased returns to workplaces, and employers are in the process of figuring out how that is going to look.

‘One phrase ingrained in our minds during this period has been social distancing,’ says Tania Adir, founder and interior designer of co-working space, Uncommon.

‘I predict this will be applied to office life too, post-Covid-19,’ she says. ‘Desk spacing and staggered starting times would reduce the number of people in the office at any one time and something I think will be applied to many mid to large sized companies.’

Tania believes that co-working spaces could provide a possible bridge for people who aren’t able to work from home but can’t return to the office.

‘Vast spaces and private offices allow for total flexibility,’ she explains. ‘Office setups can be moved around, desks moved or reduced and specific areas can be restricted to X amount of people.

‘It can also change as restrictions ease, unlike a corporate office setup.’

It may be that offices will have to adopt more of these principles of flexibility as we slowly enter our new normal.

But arguing that employees must be in the office, come rain or shine, is going to be an increasingly hard sell after months of mostly successful remote working. 

Workplace inequality

Contrary to popular belief, coronavirus is not a ‘great leveler’. This illness is not indiscriminate, and certain groups in society – minority groups – are already facing disproportionate and deadly consequences at the hands of this pandemic.

And this extends beyond the health consequences. We have seen studies citing that BAME communities will be hardest hit financially by this pandemic. And as for careers, black and minority millennials were already more likely to be in unstable employment and earn less than their white colleagues – which means their career prospects may be severely impacted by the global situation.

I think this period will force a lot of women to hit reset on their careers, as they reassess priorities, financial standing, and longer term career fulfilment.

The gender pay gap will also take a hit.

Anna Jones from all-female members club, AllBright, believes some women’s lifetime earnings will never recover.

‘We’re seeing evidence that women in particular will be hit harder than their male counterparts in the pandemic, with closures and layoffs affecting the sectors that have a higher percentage of female to male workers such as tourism and retail,’ Anna tells Metro.co.uk. 

‘I think this period will force a lot of women to hit reset on their careers, as they reassess priorities, financial standing, and longer term career fulfilment.

Anna says it’s vital that women use this time to their advantage and look to upskill and future-proof their careers.

‘A recent poll from our members showed that over 60% were using this time to self-improve and were considering a career pivot entirely,’ she says.

‘So, post lockdown, I think we’ll see a lot of change, with many considering the different options available to them. 

‘Technology and online training will no doubt play a big role as it offers an incredibly convenient and affordable way for women to upskill at their own pace.’

But certain inequalities could be redressed, in part, by the shift in working culture.

Paralympian Liz Johnson says workplaces could become more accessible for disabled people, now that new ways of working and conducting business have been proven to be not only possible, but highly effective.

‘Businesses have been able to take their entire infrastructure online in a matter of days, when previously such an undertaking might have seemed impossible,’ Liz tells Metro.co.uk. 

‘This is crucial for diversity, as embracing flexible working makes the workplace so much more accessible for disabled people and those facing conventional barriers.’

Liz explains that even the small things, such as getting ready for work and commuting, will take far longer for someone who is disabled, and by the time that person gets to work they might be exhausted.

‘Working from home enables disabled employees to avoid additional unnecessary stressors, focus on the job at hand and work around additional health needs, such as doctors appointments or physio,’ she says. ‘Disabled employees can also rest as and when they need to, without feeling embarrassed or exposed in front of colleagues.’

Liz recently founded The Ability People to help to close the disability employment gap and encourage corporates to make their hiring processes more inclusive. But she says this shift could reduce other workplace inequalities too.

‘For able-bodied employees too, working from home a day or two a week can pay dividends in terms of striking a work/life balance, making time for family commitments, fitting in exercise and just generally looking after mental health,’ she says.

‘Our new “work from home” culture could make all the difference if employers choose to learn from this experience and remain flexible, adaptable and open to change.’

Shifting careers

Job losses are a sad inevitability of the coronavirus pandemic. 950,000 new claims for universal credit were made between 16 and 31 March, and it is predicted that the UK will see a rise in unemployment to 10% of the working population, which is around 2,000,000 people.

Losing your job is always a terrifying thing to go through, but, while the uncertainty of redundancies and furlough is causing huge amounts of stress, it is also sewing the seeds of change.

A recent survey conducted by TotalJobs found that the dramatic adjustment to working life in recent months could have a long-term impact on the way people think about their jobs.

During lockdown, two thirds of people say they have spent time re-evaluating their career.

We have been given an opportunity, as abstract and unpredictable as it might be,  to look at the bigger picture in terms of how we work.

While some have been displaced due to Covid-19 and found jobs in a different industry, or are in furlough, nearly three quarters of respondents (70%) are looking ahead, saying they are more likely to consider working in a different industry when this is all over.

‘Recent events have seen businesses and communities coming together to offer support to those who need it, and early signs indicate that future career priorities could be increasingly influenced by more emotionally driven factors, and a sense of fulfillment,’ says Jon Wilson, CEO of Totaljobs.

‘We’re seeing more demand for improved work/life balance (43%), opportunities to learn new skills (51%) and having a better sense of purpose over traditional company benefits like a “cool” office environment, high profile location or work perks.’

This suggests that coronavirus has altered our workplace priorities. The promise of a free breakfast or the glamour of a swanky office building may no longer cut it in the jobs market – more of us are going to want to actually make a difference.

A different image of success

A sharp increase in working from home and flexible working may finally spell an end to ‘presenteeism’ – the concept that your worth in your job is directly correlated to how many hours you physically spend at your desk, and little else.

Presenteeism favours contact time over innovation, creation, efficiency and skill. It is the reason people compete to be the last person to leave the office every evening, the first person to send a company-wide email every morning.

It’s a toxic trait of workplace culture that contributes to burnout and the fetishisation of ‘busyness’, without rewarding employees for the things that really matter – the quality of their work.

Paralympian and founder of The Ability People Liz Johnson, says coronavirus is an opportunity to break free from the ‘chained-to-a-desk mentality’ that so many firms have sworn by for years.

‘We have been given an opportunity, as abstract and unpredictable as it might be,  to look at the bigger picture in terms of how we work,’ she says.

‘Companies have time to take a step back and look at our society – a melting pot of diverse talent, experience, knowledge and ambition – and embrace new ways of doing things to optimise every individual and get the best out of their resources and energies. 

‘The new normal should be that there is no singular “normal” way of doing things, particularly at work. Everyone is different and I hope our workplaces can more accurately reflect this going forward.’

This crisis has shown us that the way we work isn’t as embedded in who we are as a society as we once thought. Principles can be unpicked and reworked, rule books can be torn up and rewritten.

There is now a chance for employers and employees alike to grasp the ever-elusive work/life balance, a concept that has for so long been little more than a myth – even in the most progressive of workplaces.

This could be the moment where we choose to work to live, rather than live to work.

What Comes Next?

After months of strict lockdown measures, isolation and anxiety – we’re beginning to look to the future.

What will life look like when we emerge into our new normal?

Can things ever be the same as they were? Do we even want them to be the same?

What Comes Next is our series of in-depth features unpicking the possibilities for the future.

Every day for two weeks, we will look at the future of work, dating, mental health, friendships, money,  travel, and all the other elements that make up our existence.

Our lives have been turned upside down, but change doesn’t always have to be a bad thing.

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