Returning to the Office - do we really need to?
Our guest writer, Renée Mineart explores how and where we work has changed. There has been a lot of discussion lately at work about returning to work or perhaps I should say returning to the office and considering the new lockdown exit plan announced recently, I imagine a lot of you are thinking about this as well.
In fact, the topic came up in a department-wide meeting this week and our Head of IT said something really interesting: “Work should be something we do, not somewhere we go.” I thought that defined work really rather well.“Work” has traditionally been something we did somewhere other than at home (for most people anyway) and thus ‘going to work’ became synonymous with ‘doing work’. Although the two are not the same at all and the world has finally figured that out this past year.
How many times, around the world, have companies and organisations said “no” to someone asking to work from home, claiming that it was impossible or just not the way things were done. But then, a global pandemic hits and suddenly everyone that can possibly work from home, is working from home.
Narrowing our view to the UK’s response to the pandemic and a bit of google research found an April 2020 report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that says 46.6% of people in employment did some work from home as a result of COVID restrictions. Now, if that seems like a low number to what you imagined it would be, a report from the Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research and Data (WISERD) says that in January and February of 2020, only 5.7% of people worked from home. Also, their report showed that number jumped to 43.1% compared to ONS’s report of 46.6%. Regardless, it’s about an 8-fold increase in the number of people working from home, which all happened in the span of one month.
These reports go on to show that the majority of people working from home are over the age of 24, higher paid, better qualified with higher skills than their counterparts either on furlough or working away from home through the pandemic.
Although I don’t have details for this, I can easily imagine that a large number of NHS staff, by far the largest employer in the UK, are an exception to these stats, as there are many in the NHS that are highly educated (nurses, doctors, consultants, etc.) but are unable to work from home because of the nature of their work.
One question that keeps floating to the surface of my mind, is this: How has working from home changed how we work?
My colleagues and I were talking just the other day about how we love being able to attend a meeting where we’re not a key player, maybe we need to be there for the occasional bit of input or awareness, which allows us to press on with other work while keeping one ear in the meeting. It makes for a much more productive day on some days.
Also, I like how you can be in a meeting with a lively conversation going on verbally, while another conversation is going on in the meeting’s chat channel. It’s like there are two separate levels of the meeting going on at the same time. Multitasking to the max!
Yesterday I was in a meeting and needed an answer to a quick question from someone not in the meeting. So, while others were chatting, I sent this person a quick message over chat and got an immediate answer. This would never have happened in a traditional meeting with everyone sat around a table.
Other questions that have come up in the discussion of returning to the office are:
Do we have to return to working from the office?
The general answer we’re getting to this is: ‘…no, you don’t have to unless the work you do has to be physically done on site’.
Can we take a blended approach, where we maybe spend 1-2 days a week in the office and the rest work from home?
‘Yes ’is the answer we are getting for this question, a resounding yes actually.
In fact, my team in particular doesn’t have an office to go back to. We were in temporary digs right before the lockdown and once we moved to home working, our empty office was repurposed for COVID support which means we have no solution other than hot desking.
Which brings up a topic that gets a lot of discussion in our weekly all-IT meetings. It seems there are a couple of ways to do hot desking, each with pros and cons.
You can have a ‘first come, first serve’ approach, where no desks are assigned or reserved and you get what is available when you walk through the door. The downside to this is that people who live closer to the office or are early birds get the best and possibly the same desks every day. But this may not be conducive to work if several people need to work close together and can’t find free desks in the same room.
The other option is to have a reservation system, where you reserve a desk or office for the day in advance. There is more overhead with this system and it might require someone to monitor it and resolve disputes but may be fairer than a free-for-all approach.
How can we carry out meetings where some of the participants are in the office, e.g., a conference room and some are working from home?
We don’t have a firm answer for this yet but we are looking at various technical solutions to make this work as we consider it a vital part of our future operating model.
The lockdown has taught us that we can shift our thinking of work as being a set amount of time you spend at a place, to something you deliver. Should your line manager care if you took three hours or six hours to complete a given task or does it matter where that work was done? As long as the work is done to a satisfactory level and on time, does the other stuff we used to consider important, really matter?
Is where you do something important to what you do?