Here is a safe prediction. Pundits will write lots of books forecasting the post-Covid-19 world, some even reheating old ideas to get in on this publishing opportunity. The Financial Times has just reviewed four such books, which seem premature given that the pandemic is far from over. However, predictions of radical change in office work are well-founded Most of the conditions for big behaviour change are in place. Here are six factors, which, taken together, point to a very different future.
Knowledge Workers Want Change
Enlightened companies have been surveying their staff to plan new arrangements. McKinsey Research in June 2020 found that 80% enjoyed working from home, 41% said they were more productive and 28% rated their productivity as about the same as at the office. Very few want to go back to five days in the office; yet, they still want to meet colleagues and look forward to face to face collaborations. Solutions will vary between sectors and disciplines. In some cases, like accountancy, most of the work can be done remotely. Others, like creative teams, may want to be together more often.
Not a New Behaviour
Tech firms in particular already offered their staff more flexibility to work from home (WFH). WFH was a common acronym when I was at Google. This, therefore, is not a new behaviour – new behaviours being notoriously difficult to establish – but an acceleration of an existing one. For organisations battling to hire the best talent, a flexible working plan was already essential pre-Covid-19.
Easy and Inexpensive
Imagine if the pandemic had happened 30 years ago. The disruption for knowledge workers would have been huge. No laptop, no broadband at home, no Zoom. Yet throughout this pandemic, I have been running courses on Zoom. Participants have joined from Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, the UK as well as the US. Previously only for people who could come to London, this course can now be accessed globally at no extra cost. Ease, or to use the jargon ‘a reduction in friction’ is one of the big enablers and predictors of behaviour change.
Time and Who Controls It
Yet there is something deeper at play too. Greater control over your own time also engenders greater happiness. Ever since the industrial revolution, workers have been regimented by the company clock. You clock in at nine and clock out at five (if you are lucky). Ambitious types feel the need to stay even longer (not leaving before the boss). Cunning types leave a jacket hanging over the backs of their chair to create the impression that they are somehow always in the office. Covid represents a historic opportunity to redesign how we work, which will bring broader benefits for human flourishing, family relationships and creativity.
A Mass Behavioural Experiment Has Taken Place
We have had over nine months of enforced behaviour change – long enough for our old habits to be broken and new ones wired into our system. We are creatures of habit and so it will be difficult, strange even, to go back to the way we were. Social norms have been altered. Before Covid-19, WFH was tainted with the implication that you were ‘bunking off’. No longer.
Bosses Want It
Fears about loss of productivity among knowledge workers have proven (largely) to be unfounded. (Organisations with better, more trusting staff relations knew this already.) Finance directors can see benefits too. They can reduce office space and save a lot of money on rent. My daughter’s market research firm is planning to reduce from three offices to one located near a railway hub to make life easier for staff making a long commute. There will however, be consequences, both expected and unexpected. Progress always has victims and winners, as well as unexpected consequences. Some losers are already obvious; landlords, airlines dependent on business class revenues and coffee shops and sandwich bars that serve office workers. As are some winners – the tech companies and the likes of Zoom. But you knew that.
We Will Have to Redesign How We Use Space
Semi-empty post-Covid-19 offices will look depressing. So, savings on reduced office space will have to be reinvested in creating environments that are appealing and promote collaboration. Everyone will learn from the tech start-ups who are masters of the hip office design that feels like a home away from home. People will bring their dogs to work as well. (We did this at Google five years ago.) The prescience of a perky Pekinese changes the mood of a meeting – and for the better. Homes will be adapted to create separate workspaces. For the well-heeled, expect a slew of innovations like ‘the garden office’ – essentially a glorified hut with heating and electrics. Poets and writers often have a writing shed, senior executives will have their version, but with more technology. Youngsters in their cramped flats will get frustrated and go out to coffee shops or move out of cramped city flats into the cheaper more spacious in the hinterland. Commutes will get longer. Broadband and 4G (or even 5G) in the countryside will enable some to live the dream of working from a cottage.
All trends have countertrends. So, expect pundits to bemoan the way work has invaded the private space of homes as well as weekends. People will develop strategies to create a clear separation between the two, such as boxes in which all office papers are put away at a certain point in the day and screens to divide workspace from home space. Yet, there is still the danger that many will simply swap old routines for new ones.
Liberation and Creativity
For many, however, this is a chance to introduce more serendipity and variety into our lives. For creatives, this will prove to be a moment of liberation. We can jump the tramlines of old office routines and work in different places, bringing freshness through a greater variety of experience. Experts on creativity, like Edward de Bono, prescribe diverse and surprising stimulus as a way of arriving at new ideas. At Google, where I worked in an innovation team, I grew bored of staring at a screen (which is the big downside of the digital revolution). So, we became peripatetic. Sometimes we would just walk around Soho for an hour, gazing into shops and at fellow strollers. We picked animals at London Zoo to inspire inventions. We went into Poundland (all items cost one pound), bought something and used it as stimulus for idea generation. All of this may seem a bit self-indulgent, but I know from experience that fresh and unexpected brain food provokes different ideas. Besides, in this new world, you can choose how you want to collaborate with colleagues – and you don’t have to justify it to anyone.
So, my tip for bosses is this. Survey your staff and invite them to co-create new and better ways of working. The time is ripe. It may just be what you have all been waiting for.
Julian Saunders is Founder, The Joined Up Company and former CEO, Red Cell (a WPP creative agency) and Head of Strategy, McCann-Erickson. firstname.lastname@example.org