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We are all having to adjust to the restrictions imposed by the Government to tackle the spread of COVID-19, BroomeJenkins’ Barry Jenkins considers. But what will this all mean to the workplace and how we all work in the future?
Beyond the difficulty of adapting or the immediate economic impact, the sudden measures have reduced activity and travel, achieving in a very short space of time what environmentalists have so far been unable to achieve, despite a huge effort. Perhaps this global crisis will recalibrate our approach to many things that we take for granted and, like trying to quit an addictive habit, this unwelcome and deadly event may help us change our ways for the better.
Thinking beyond the immediate situation and considering how the workplace and the industry that serves it will be once normality returns, it is reasonable to assume changes will be felt in the workplace. Momentous events always leave a legacy. Airport security has never been the same since 9/11. However, the current crisis is more than an economic slump or a conflict of ideologies. It is going to cut to the core of modern life, and the behaviours we are used to will inevitably change.
The economic crisis of 2008 exposed the tendency for financial excesses. In the office furniture industry, a number of companies questioned the cost and commercial value of exhibiting at large trade events. Some decided to stop attending. Interestingly, the many design festivals, such as Clerkenwell Design Week, that have grown since 2008, are an improved way of showcasing an industry. CDW – and events like it – allow manufacturers to exploit their showrooms, which is a costly resource they have all year round. With fringe activities around the periphery, district-wide events create civic benefit and (in the case of Clerkenwell) have encouraged the furniture industry to cluster. So for those who decided not to exhibit at trade shows, was it commercially damaging? I doubt it.
In this time of imposed isolation, we need to reflect on the actual priorities that will provide new opportunities when we emerge on the other side.To that end, does the past provide any clues?
Each recession I have experienced over the past 30 years has shaped the workplace and the furniture industry. In the mid 1990s there was an economic downturn, very modest in comparison to now or 2008. However, I remember at the time a headline in a trade journal. It was a quote from the CBI addressing an industry conference. I may be slightly misquoting here, but it said that ‘the challenge the (furniture) industry faces in difficult times is that furniture is the ultimate deferrable purchase!’ Sobering thought, but true.
The current crisis is more than an economic slump or a conflict of ideologies. It is going to cut to the core of modern life, and the behaviours we are used to will inevitably change.
Comparing the industry then and now, well known companies disappeared or were acquired by others, leaving a reduced industry. Importantly, in the workplace, it changed the amount spent on workstations due to the sudden expansion of IT and the use of PCs. Although, at the time, PCs were readily available, the timing of the slump was perfect as it expanded the use of IT across all aspects of work. As the economy recovered, firms with now reduced workforces found that using the newer multitasking PC,s saved the work of several people, improving efficiency and shrinking the workforce permanently. Some of the budget previously spent on furniture now went towards IT, and desks became much simpler and cheaper.
Although ideas like Activity Based Working and hot desking had been circulating for a while in one form or another, in the wake of 2008, with improved mobile communications, smartphones and Cloud computing, the benefits of ‘nomadic’ working accelerated as the tools were readily available. Although beneficial to the worker, some may say the benefits to the employer were far greater, as they could reduce real estate cost and downtime. So was the motive to improve work/life balance for the worker or a cost saving exercise for the employer?
The recent instruction for those who can, to work from home was given fairly quickly. It was a viable decision as most people today have the tools and technology available to work from home either on an informal or permanent basis. The main network providers have said that the capacity to cope with peak times at weekends for streaming media would be adequate for the increased traffic during the working day. Although reassuring words from service providers, mobile networks have experienced outages and there are bound to be interruptions, simply because of the extreme times we are in. Does this event therefore make the decision about who delivers 5G more pressing and possibly inevitable?
What interests me are the cultural aspects of this sudden and imposed experiment in remote working. In the past few days, I have made several calls to deal with different business related issues. The teams in question have been disbursed and direct communications with individuals have become almost impossible. I expect the teams are finding it challenging to remain engaged with each other, and contact with line managers is no longer a call across a dividing screen in the same office.
So will an imposed 12-week break force us to reflect on the things we really value? The environment will benefit for a while due to the suspension of travel and manufacturing. Will normal service resume, or are we being taught a tough lesson, the hard way, about our excessive consumption and bad habits? Or being a social species, will we rebound like a tightly coiled spring, and resume our normal pattern of behaviour in reaction to the imposed isolation? In terms of the workplace, will large scale home working test the infrastructure, workers and companies to a degree that results in a rejection of remote working? Will a prolonged period of isolation make us value human contact and interaction more? It will be interesting to see what opportunities there are once we have dealt with COVID-19 and counted the human, cultural and financial cost.
Inspiration for your next read
The last in our series on how the current crisis will affect the commercial interiors (and wider) world, we’ve asked a number of leading end users and workplace experts to offer their opinions on where we’re likely to find ourselves post-COVID.
Angela Bardino, Design Principal at leading professional services firm, Jacobs, examines employees’ impact on both immediate business and subsequent end user groups.