It may still be far too early to start speculating whether there may be some positive benefits from the COVID-19 pandemic, or even whether there will be any at all. But it is certain that the world will never be the same again in a whole number of ways.
Naturally, one of the most significant of these changes will be in the way we work, especially if that work is carried out in an office environment.
That is because, even in the far-off days of the future when social distancing may not still be a necessity, there are likely to be seismic shifts to the ways in which offices function. This will undoubtedly create challenges for everyone from line managers to HR departments as the world of work starts to adjust to the “new normal”.
Prior to March of this year, relatively few people had heard of Zoom and Microsoft Teams, let alone actually used them. But, as the initial lockdown was imposed and the vast majority of offices were closed for the duration, suddenly they became the only way of holding meetings. Yes, there had been conference calls before, but these had always been seen as somewhat second-best to actually meeting in person.
But now we are all used to meeting up online, many businesses are starting to question whether this is not an altogether better alternative. After all, Zoom meetings tend to be to-the-point and without the somewhat unnecessary pre-amble that accompanies most office-based meetings.
More home working
Of course, these online get-togethers are just one element of a far bigger change which has seen an estimated 46% of people working from home with over 60% of office workers falling into this category.
While the difficulties that this has represented cannot be underestimated, especially for those with school-age children whose care and education also had to be managed, for many it has been a positive experience. With no daily commute and increased flexibility over when to work their required hours, it has proved to have its advantages. And rather than adversely affecting productivity, many employers have found it has actually increased it.
Before it became such a necessity, the attitude of employers to flexible working and working from home had not always been universally positive. Even though the 2014 Flexible Working Regulations gave employees the legal right to request this, home working has remained – up until the last few months – the exception rather than the norm.
Research suggests that, prior to the coronavirus outbreak, only about 5% of the UK's 33 million workers worked mainly from home. Despite the regulations, it is relatively easy for employers to refuse a request for home working backed by the exclusions outlined in the legislation, and employees have little chance to challenge the decision.
But now the situation has started to reverse itself. COVID-19 restrictions mean that an employee is more like to have to request to come into the office rather than stay from home. And, given that working from home has proved to be so successful in so many situations, this might become the norm.
Lower office overheads
A very welcome side-effect for business owners might be that they can start to cut the costs of what is typically their second-largest overhead after salaries, the office-space itself. With more people working remotely and the potential for hot-desking increased, it could be that soon there may be a need for far fewer than the 75 square feet of office space that is generally needed per employee. For many businesses facing an uncertain financial future, this potential reduction in costs could be vital. And, with more office space becoming available, it could even force prices down – more good news for businesses if not for landlords.
Looking at it all from an HR perspective, it may be that contracts of employment may need to be changed in order to accommodate home working and appraisals will need to be carried out remotely. However, generally, it should be a transition that is quite easy to make.
Of course, no-one can give a precise prediction of how the world of work will change. But there are good reasons to suppose that the 7-months plus that the new ways of working have been successful will lead to much change.
For many businesses and employees it’s also going to be a change that they’ll relish.