I can work anywhere, there we go, enough said, let’s move on.
Well, maybe the question, shouldn’t be can you work anywhere, but how can the environment improve and enhance your work.
There is probably a deeper question about the nature of “work” in there, but I’ll leave that for the moment.
The pandemic has completely changed the concept of the workplace and patterns of working. There has been a lot of press and political rhetoric about people returning to work, though what they mean is much more about returning to the offices where people can work.
Back in September 2020 there was this article on the BBC News: Warnings of ‘ghost towns’ if staff do not return to the office.
Dame Carolyn said the UK’s offices were “vital drivers” of the economy, supporting thousands of local firms, from dry cleaners to sandwich bars. “The costs of office closure are becoming clearer by the day. Some of our busiest city centres resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade.
This tweet echoed my thoughts on that article.
What would you rather have? A better work/life balance or the knowledge you’re keeping Pret open? Unbelievable.
The issue is that the genie is out of the bottle now, both staff and businesses are seeing the potential benefits (and the pitfalls) of working from home. This shift in working patterns will not go away, despite the feeling that the pandemic is “over”. This doesn’t mean that we’re all working from home permanently as we were under lockdown, but it does mean that we’re very likely not to go back to the way things were.
When I visited London in July 2021 and it felt deserted, almost apocalyptic. There was no one around as I went into our London office on that Monday in July. Coffee places were closed and the trains were deserted.
On more recent visits, London does feel quiet on a Monday and a Friday, though pre-pandemic, Fridays were often quieter anyhow. During the middle of the week, London feels very busy and crowded. There are queues for sandwiches and coffee. Having said that, looking into the office windows by our office and on the way into London, we can see many empty desks and meeting rooms.
However what does this all mean for the nature of work. I am reminded that work is something we do, not somewhere we go.
I remember a Twitter discussion, where someone was asking why anyone would work from the office one day and then work from home another. Their thinking was that the nature of their work was similar day to day, so why would you keep changing your location for working? I think this is a fair point, and for some roles where the day to day routine is repetitive then working in the same location can make sense.
For many people, including myself, what we do changes over the day, during the week and over time. Sometimes my work is about reading and making notes, add in there writing. Other times I am facilitating workshops, attending meetings, running meetings, having conversations, and so on. Throw in their online versions of these as well to complicate the mix.
My working pattern vary week to week, so each week I could be doing something different, and sometimes in different parts of the UK.
The pandemic certainly has changed my working patterns and I have a lot more online meetings (and events) in my diary than I did pre-pandemic.
I do like to consider I can work anywhere. I don’t mind if I am at home, in our different offices, at Caffe Nero drinking coffee, on the train, even sitting outside in the sun!
Having said that, the environment in which I work can impact on my productivity and what I do or produce.
I don’t really find having an online meeting sitting at a desk in the office, effective. I much prefer to do those calls in a meeting room where I can shut the door and control the external noise (also means I don’t necessarily need to wear a headset either).
If I have a lot of online meetings, than most times I will work from home, no one to interrupt me, and coffee easily on hand. Of course this changes during the school holidays, when I will more likely commute into the office to avoid disturbing the rest of the household.
When it comes to (online) presentations, a lot depends on where I am. In one of our offices, you can’t turn off the air-conditioning in the meeting rooms and it can be quite noisy, so in those circumstances, I will probably present from home (luckily for me I have decent broadband now). In one of our other offices I can turn off the air-conditioning in the meeting rooms, so have used them for delivering online presentations.
When I need focus, I am much more flexible, I am quite happy to sit at a desk (home or office), though I will sometimes prefer an external location, a place where I can drink coffee.
For mundane administration or processing of e-mail, location becomes even less important. This is the kind of thing I can do on the train, drinking coffee, or waiting for a meeting to start.
If I have a day of online calls and meetings, then I really don’t see the point of commuting to the office and sitting at a desk with a headset, or hiding away in a meeting room.
Though I have participated in many online workshops with tools such as a Miro board, I have to say I am not really a fan. If, given the choice, I would much prefer to meet in-person and run that kind of workshop.
Of course one aspect of “going into the office” which can be difficult to recreate online, is that ad hoc meeting or conversation, the happenstance of someone you need being in the office on the same day you are, chatting with other people, as you make coffee, and so on. I do use tools such as Twitter, Yammer and even Teams for this kind of thing, but it is not the same. For somethings the online is better (think about sharing news and links), for others in-person is better for me.
Reflecting on the changing nature of work does mean that desks, offices and rooms which were ideal for the way we worked in 2019, are now not fit for purpose.
We might want to consider how and where people are working and then reflect on creating effective environments that enhance and enable productive working environments.
This might mean, more social spaces to encourage in-person interaction. Organisations which have a high level of online calls and meetings, might want to consider creating more acoustic spaces for people to do this. Where people do a lot of presentations, a TV studio type space might be the answer.
Of course the patterns of working with people potentially coming into the office for a day a week or a few days in the week, does mean that offices can be quite busy in the middle of the week and much quieter on Mondays and Fridays.
Organisations may want to start thinking about how they will encourage people to come into the offices on those quiet days, what incentives could be in place, so that when people plan their weeks, occupancy of the office can be spread more evenly over the week. This could be travel passes (alas taxable), doughnuts, financial incentives. Or go the other way and use disincentives.
Within my own organisation, decisions are still being made about the future of the offices we have. However it is clear that we won’t be going back to what we had before. Even being a pretty much blended workplace anyhow, the covid-19 pandemic forced a non-office culture on everyone. Of course everyone won’t be able to work from home, and not everyone will want to work from home. Giving people a choice is important.
What I am hoping to see in the future is that office space encourages and enables different ways of working and that rows of desk working staff is not the norm for the future.