Explore the latest projects from the UK’s commercial interiors industry, featuring the best of workspace, hospitality, residential and public sectors.

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‘The New Normal’ – or history repeating?

After three months of being locked down, Steve Gale asks, ‘how much more home working do we want?’

10/08/2020 3 min read

If you thought Brexit was divisive, what about home working? My unscientific poll of work colleagues shows that those for and against are equally divided and there is no decisive preference one way or the other. Just like Brexit then.

However, there is a sniff of consensus around a compromise. When people compare the office with home, most can see advantages to both. If we tried having a bit of each, what could that look like? The concept of home working has been tried and tested, but never before under the conditions of these last three months, with realistic alternatives ruled out. What have we learnt about how it might look?

Technology began to loosen our chains to the office during the nineties, and demand for remote working warmed up, so employers offered it as a perk or compensation for desk sharing or, more commonly, both. The prospect of saving real estate costs kept it on the agenda.

For example, in the private sector, Microsoft boasted how everyone’s contract in the Thames Valley Park allowed people to work mainly at
home, with office space guaranteed if and when they wanted it on the well-appointed estate. At the same time, IBM, Hewlett Packard and Sun Microsystems had formal provision for employees to elect for a home working assessment, which was never unreasonably refused. In the UK public sector, local authorities embraced the idea during the restructuring of social services and education departments, and central government adopted it as they reviewed space across the ministries, always with an eye on the prize of a smaller estate portfolio.

Questions surfaced about employee rights, and corporate responsibility, but we learnt from all the people who had been working like this for years. Sales reps, peripatetic health workers, farmers and consultants had seen these problems before. What if someone suffers an injury while working at home?How do you know if someone is actually working? Do we provide furniture? Do we compensate for using domestic services like electricity and the internet?

But… just as things settled down, the tide turned back in February 2013 when Marissa Mayer (new Yahoo! CEO) ordered everyone back into the office. Over the next couple of years, other tech companies followed suit until the idea of all working together under one roof became the official religion again, but for different reasons from the old days. Now it was to preserve the culture and encourage interaction, not because it was where the tools and files were kept.

The unwelcome pandemic experiment has exposed structural weaknesses that for years were merely hairline cracks.

Right up until March this year, tech companies (with very few exceptions) accommodated all of their people in the workplace, and they either discouraged home working, or grudgingly allowed managers to use their discretion. The infamous Yahoo! email from 2013 had become reality – ‘It isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices’, which is fertile soil for the seeds of ‘workplace experience’ concepts where food offerings shame the high street, gyms are brought in-house, meditation, games and music facilities are common – and don’t get me started on the coffee!

But COVID changed all that, as we know.

Then Twitter, an international shrine to workplace experience, announced in May that its employees will be allowed to work from home ‘forever’. Other organisations are keeping their options open for the long-term, but all tech firms seem to agree that home working will be around for a while. Has the flood tide begun to ebb? Will remote working stick this time? And will companies need less office space?

The unwelcome pandemic experiment has exposed structural weaknesses that for years were merely hairline cracks. Now we must reassess the demand for home working in the light of vastly improved software and internet access, and the possibility of more global disruptions, and the renewed interest from employees who have found it works for them.

Organisations are looking again at how much they can retain their culture and the interactions needed to innovate with a more dispersed workforce, and they will address the real danger of partisan tribes forming around self-selecting groups of home workers and office workers before it becomes a reality.

A silver lining for business might be a smaller real estate footprint that is pre-prepared for the next pandemic (or a resurgence of the same one) but all organisations will need to respond to the shifting centre of gravity in the workplace model.

Steve Gale is Head of Business Intelligence  at M Moser Associates.

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