FOR millions of workers, the daily commute is currently a journey of a few yards.
Despite a short-lived campaign to get people back to the office last summer, most of those people have spent an entire year working from home.
Research in recent days has suggested that only 16 per cent of staff expect a full-time return to the office if lockdown eases as planned on June 21. The survey, by Yonder for Cignpost ExpressTest, also found that 40 per cent expected their employers to make a return to the office voluntary.
After 12 months of working from the kitchen table, corner desk or whatever flat surface they could find, staff and employers alike are taking stock of how the unplanned experiment in remote working is going.
Matt Desmier is an experienced home worker
THE MOVE TO HOME WORKING IN 2020
We did not just shift to home working last year. We shifted to an extreme form of home working, where even taking your laptop to a coffee shop was forbidden for months at a time.
What’s more, many people had to supervise their children’s home schooling alongside their day job.
Poole-based Matt Desmier, who advises brands via his business Wise Old Uncle, has been home-based for a decade. But he draws a distinction between nine years of working at home and one year of being “at home trying to work”.
“For nine years pre-Covid, my office was wherever I laid my hat. More often than not, that was the dining room table, the kitchen table or the coffee table in the lounge. Every now and then it might have been a coffee shop. And on the rare occasion, it would’ve been a client’s office,” he says.
“I had routines. I knew how to manage my mental health, the loneliness, the wandering mind and my desire to eat everything in sight.
“Nowadays my office is nowhere. The kids have commandeered the lounge,” he said before schools resumed.
“My wife has commandeered the dining room and the kitchen is no longer the safe haven it once was. What routines I had have dissipated like my livelihood. My mental health is in tatters, my mind constantly wanders and I’ve put on a stone since the first lockdown.
“Okay, so perhaps it’s not that bad. Exercise has been the thing that has saved me. Exercise and noise-cancelling headphones.”
Some bosses have taken care to check in with staff about how they are doing, physically and mentally, in the succession of lockdowns.
Nick Hixson, who runs the Charminster accountancy and business advisory business Hixsons, ensured his staff had decent desks, monitors and chairs at home, delivering their office equipment to them where necessary. Once a month, food is delivered from Bournemouth business Lunch’d.
“I think productivity dropped off initially and I didn’t say a word about it and I didn’t think I should,” says Mr Hixson.
“I think it’s back to what it was now because they’re settled into the rhythm of working at home.”
Warren Munson, founder of the Poole business advisory firm Inspire, conducts a regular Friday “pulse” survey of staff happiness. The company has virtual team socials including quizzes, horse racing and a Christmas party.
“The critical thing for our team has been wellbeing and how we make sure we’re supporting them within their working remit,” he says.
“We made a £50 contribution to every member of the team in January to go and spend on something that improves their mental wellbeing. You might like gardening, you might like cooking – go and do something that’s’ a real benefit to your wellbeing and not feeling isolated.”
THE DRAWBACKS OF WORKING FROM HOME
The positives of home working are not hard to see.
Millions of people have no longer been sitting in daily traffic jams – usually with one person in each car – in order to report at their desk at 9am.
Many have worked hard and then closed the laptop in time to read to a child, spend time with a partner or cultivate a hobby.
But there are certainly drawbacks.
Gordon Fong is director of the data hosting business Kimcell in Bournemouth and Winfrith, responsible keeping technology working so that other businesses could work from home.
Yet he is not an enthusiast for home working.
“I get slightly annoyed by proclamations from a certain profile of business owners who declare, ‘We don’t need an office any more’,” he says.
“In my view they, or their senior management team, are able to embrace the new world of remote working, and shutting the office for good, because they are much further down the road in life, as in they have a nice stable home, with many rooms, a study even, a garden, or a kitchen diner to spread out in.
“For these people, the experience of not wasting time commuting, and to use that opportunity to spend valuable time with their children before they are bathed and sent to bed, is a fantastic benefit.
“However, for younger workers, leaving their place of abode, be it a family home or shared dwelling with friends or strangers, gives a valuable differentiation in their lives. It creates space.”
He says his message to other business leaders is: “In the company Zoom/Teams call, don’t just look at the faces of your staff, take in what’s behind them, the setting, the backdrop. Are they in their bedroom, are they in the eaves of their top floor flat, are they comfortable? We can buy new monitors, laptop stands, keyboards and ergonomic chairs for our staff, as is our responsibility, but we cannot buy space.
“Sure, many people will enjoy moving to remote working but it can’t be taken as a given, and needs to be challenged.”
Ian Girling of Dorset Chamber says most employers are keen to get back to the workplace
WHAT ARE WE MISSING?
Ian Girling, chief executive of Dorset Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says there is “no doubt” that most businesses are looking forward to having their teams back at the office.
“Our experience is that we’ve all learned new and efficient ways of working, particularly through the mainstream adoption of video conferencing, and my hope is we continue to innovate and take forward the positives from the last 12 months,” he says.
“But there is no doubt productivity will have suffered for many businesses and working from home will have been a real challenge for many, particularly people who live alone who may have felt very isolated over this time.
“We are social creatures and we need to be with our colleagues for stimulation and that feeling of being part of a team.”
Tom Doherty is managing director of the HR Dept in East Dorset and the New Forest, advising small and medium sized firms on personal issues.
“The main disadvantages highlighted about working from home have been issues with communication, people not being as productive or overworking, lack of team bonding/working together and wanting to use the resources/space they have to accommodate their staff,” he says.
“It is a fine balance because it has had many advantages but ultimately comes down to the nature of the role someone does, the business they operate in and the commercial needs of the business.”
But for many, the benefits of being among your colleagues are real, if hard to quantify.
Gordon Fong is concerned about the impact of home working on younger staff
The work of Gordon Fong’s business includes answering technical support calls. “Where are the quick over-the-shoulder answers? For instance, being in the same room as a colleague who’s taking a support call for which they have no answer can be solved invariably by someone who does?” he says.
“Where are the random conversations? The ones that help you know more about your colleagues, the ones that build friendships outside of the workplace. The ones when you find out what to watch next on Netflix. You can’t plan random conversations. “How do you nurture and grow the confidence of younger staff?”
At Inspire, Warren Munson noticed that his staff were racking up more chargeable hours in the first lockdown. But in a company that pride itself on a team spirit, chargeable hours are not everything, he says.
“They’re more productive but is that at the disadvantage of being able to be face to face, to spend time with our clients with those long-term relationships, which is what we’re all about? Everything’s become a little bit more commoditised.”
Nick Hixson predicts a “hybrid” working model
HAS WORK CHANGED FOREVER?
Whatever happens after Covid, many bosses believe office workers will not automatically be going back to the 8.30am traffic jam.
“I think we will end up with a hybrid solution when it all comes back,” says Nick Hixson about his own business, Hixsons.
“We’ll come back to the office but not four or five times a week. We’re all set up to work at home and as long as the work gets done, frankly I don’t care. Certainly they’re working at odd hours and I do not want them coming into the office at 6am or at the weekends because I don’t want to.”
He is among the world’s small number of Drucker Associates – named after Peter Drucker, often called the founder of modern management theory. Mr Hixson points to a paper by another Drucker Associate, Nancy Dixon, who describes the “Oscillation Principle” – the idea that we may work separately but come together at scheduled times and have meaningful interactions between those meetings.
“It depends on the office,” says Mr Hixon.
“People like architects want to be together because they’re discussing the same project, whereas people like my lot tend to work on a job each, and they can still be productive on that. But I think most people seem to be open to at least a hybrid solution. I’ve no idea what that’s going to do to office space in the town but it won’t be good.”
Tom Doherty of the HR Department says it could all depend on the size of the business you work for. “Though there have been plenty of examples of large corporate business, like banks, reducing their footprint of office sizes and finding more reasons to create more opportunities for hybrid working, it just may not be right to a small business to do so or productive to do so,” he says.
He adds: “For our own balance we have said our own staff can nominate one day a week to work from home, once returning to the office in the future.”
Warren Munson says most staff want flexibility
Back last summer, when Boris Johnson was talking up the prospect of people going back to work in town centres, Warren Munson of Inspire polled his team.
“The results showed the majority did want to be able to work from the office but with some degree of flexibility around working hours and working from home,” he says.
He has three core staff in the office now but intends to phase in the wider return to work. After June 21, the model is likely to require people to be at the office on Mondays and Wednesdays only. Core hours on those office days will most likely be 10am-12noon and 2-4pm.There will be fewer internal meetings, he says. “Sometimes you seem to have internal meetings every day. If you can focus them and make them more efficient, I think it will make us more productive as well.”
Ian Girling of Dorset Chamber says the return to work has to be well managed. “We will have all got used to certain ways of working over the last year and my view is we need to take a planned and structured approach to give people time to adapt and adjust and get used to being back in the office – and let’s hang on to the positives and not just return to old ways of working.”
Nick Hixson adds: “We need a period of relative calm to see ‘How is this settling and what bits are working and what aren’t?’ “We’re in a state of considerable uncertainty still. I think the only thing we can rely on is more uncertainty but there are opportunities in that as well as threats.”
Katie Marlow of Little Bird Communication offers tips on home working
TIPS FOR HOME WORKING
Whatever the future holds, a lot of us face months more of working at home.
Matt Desmier says he has adopted new routines. “I get up super early now and walk or run every day. It helps me focus on the day ahead,” he says.
“And that day ahead is approximately half of what I used to do. Distractions come in thick and fast, so I’ve learnt that I need to limit what I’m setting myself up to fail at.
“I keep two lists. One ongoing stuff with no specific end, and one with very specific deadlines. One to think about when I can, and one to get done before someone else gets let down.”
Everything, he says, takes twice as long as before. “I’m only going to be able to work uninterrupted for 20mins at a time, so things are taking forever. As long as I manage others’ expectations, that’s okay.”
Bournemouth-based communication consultant Katie Marlow, who runs Little Bird Communication, is another experienced home worker.
“I’ve worked from home for over 10 years,” she says.
“In that time, I’ve progressed from the kitchen table to a desk and office chair in a corner of the house. I quickly found a pace to my days that works for me.
“We’re all different but my advice for everyone working from home is based on four principles.”
- Give your day structure;
- Make your space work for you;
- Look after yourself; and
- Create connections.
“These will help you separate work and home, manage your day and competing priorities, keep well and comfortable and importantly maintain your human connections,” she says.
“Everyone’s experience of working through lockdown is different. A lot of people I talk with are working harder and at a pace they’ve never worked at before whilst doing it all at home with their family and other personal commitments alongside. It can easily feel overwhelming and exhausting, so it’s more important than ever to prioritise yourself and consciously make time for you.”