Basically we’re not, says Andy Lake, director of Flexibility.co.uk. It’s time for a new national conversation about the social infrastructure needed for 21st century working.
During the Covid-19 lockdown millions of people have taken to working from home. For some it’s a temporary measure. But one survey after another has shown that many more people are going to spend more time working from home.
Twitter has told their employees they can work from home forever, if they want to. Google, which has always put a premium on having people turn up at the office – work there, play there, even sleep there – is now offering £1,000 to employees to set up a good homeworking environment.
I’ve been working in the flexible/smart working field for more than 25 years now. And in the past few months I’ve seen the scales fall from people’s eyes – “Yes, we really can do this!” say former sceptics.
Even the collaboration that people find to have been so essential to do as physical face-to-face meetings they now find can be done remotely. And even more, they are discovering for themselves the opportunities to connect to people who were previously out of reach.
Flexibility is part of the new normal. Virtuality is becoming part of the new normal too, though we are only at the beginnings of what is possible. And those organisations that were already embracing smart or agile working had a distinct headstart when it came to the resilience to deal with the crisis. Their example should be followed.
Over the past few months, I’ve also been working with organisations and workplace designers who are looking at return-to-work arrangements. While continued homeworking is definitely on the agenda, corporately the conversation is almost entirely about getting people back to their previous workplace safely.
It’s mostly about enabling work to be carried out in safe environments with social distancing. In-office one-way systems, curbing proximity and rigorous hygiene. There are conversations about rotas of people working in the office and working from home.
All this is fair enough. But it strikes me there is a big gap in the current narrative. There’s a gap in both organisational approaches and in public policy. That is, pretty much all the rethinking is about the office environment, and not about the home environment.
There is a growing debate in the property and workplace industries about what increased levels of homeworking means for corporate property. Basically, the requirement for office space will be even lower. And if employers are investing in facilities and equipment for employees to work from home, savings in corporate property to fund this make good sense.
Digitisation, artificial intelligence and increased automation also reduce the need for people to be physically present in more “hands-on” workplaces in laboratories and in engineering and manufacturing settings. Remote access to systems and information is enabled by a shift towards greater knowledge-work components of previously hands-on work, with the attendant evolution of the skills required. Remote monitoring, maintenance, analysis and management remove at least part of the requirement to be co-located with the things you work with.
So – less office space, and more time working remotely. Planning, housing and transport policy, however, are stuck in a mid-20th century time-warp. They still focus on separating employment from housing. And standards for building homes take no account of people’s needs for work.
Most homes are simply not well designed for substantial amounts of working from home. Let’s face it, most of us have been winging it so far during this crisis because there’s a premium on keeping ourselves safe. So we put up with working conditions that are not ideal in the long-term. We see in conference calls and on TV people connecting from the kitchen or bedroom. I’ve had a meeting with someone who converted a store cupboard into an ersatz home office. Creative but not ideal.
At the same time, there has been a big focus on the housing shortage, and the need to build more homes. But I rarely see an article about “What is a home for in the 21 st century?” To me, this seems an essential question.
For the past 40 years average house size in the UK has been getting smaller and smaller. Housing policy at all levels encourages higher density, not least for social housing.
We are designing out the ability to work from home, and in particular run a business from home, just at the time when we have the capability to work in much more decentralised ways. The benefits of doing so would be substantial for economic development, for business resilience, for families, for communities and for the environment.
For me, the conclusion is inescapable. Amongst the millions of new homes we need to build, a very significant proportion of them need to be larger, with the spaces that support different kinds of work.
In their excellent book, The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, Andrew Scott and Lynda Gratton look at how careers are likely to evolve as we live longer lives, and ones which are generally healthier into older age. We’re looking at potentially multiple careers and periods of retraining over a lifetime, and periods of flexing into and out of employment.
I would add to that possible periods of self-employment. And maybe periods where home schooling and caring for both younger and older family members is part of the picture. We need to build homes, local co-working spaces and community facilities that support this new approach to the extended workplace and the greater integration of work and home life.
So while workplaces are going to continue shrinking, employers and policy-makers need to get behind an urgent conversation about the place of work in society if we want to create truly great places to work, both in the office and beyond. And we’ll have better places to hunker down when the next pandemic strikes.