As lockdown measures start to ease and businesses slowly begin to reopen, it’s become increasingly clear that the way we live and work has changed dramatically.

It may be a while before we can all agree on what the ‘new normal’ looks like, and the effects of COVID-19 will of course be felt differently across every industry and region. But for those of us who work in traditionally office-based roles, there’s a good chance that things won’t be going back to the way they were for a long time yet — if ever.

But is that necessarily a bad thing? Is it possible that, for all the harm and heartache that COVID-19 has inflicted on the world, it has also served as an accidental catalyst of sorts for workplace reform?

Today on the RotaCloud Small Business Success blog, I’ll be sharing a series of predictions about the ways this crisis will cause us to rethink our approach to office-based work — possibly forever.


1: Working from home becomes commonplace

By far the biggest adjustment that many of us have had to make in recent months is that of working from home instead of going into the office.

It might have taken a bit of getting used to, and I’m sure the nation would have preferred to be eased into it rather than being dropped in full-time, but work-from-home has now become the norm for many — even in businesses that previously didn’t have a policy covering it.

And that’s something I think we can expect to see a lot more of in the future.

While there are downsides to having staff work remotely, the benefits of doing so are numerous. By not having to travel to work, employees immediately reclaim a large portion of their day. In addition, with fewer people commuting, the roads, buses and trains become quieter (+1 for the environment!), and in many cases staff actually start and finish work earlier, helping them strike a better work-life balance. There are no arguments about the temperature the air conditioning is set to when you work from home, nor about the choice of music being played, and employers are saving hundreds of pounds a month in electricity bills.

The longer-term impacts of working from home 100% of the time are less clear. Building and shaping company culture becomes more difficult when it’s done remotely, as does building a strong rapport between teams, so managers will have to make a concerted effort to foster relationships between their teams. Communication tools like Slack, Zoom and Google Meet will help, but they’re not quite the same as chatting in-person. Will the lack of office work lead to shallower relationships between colleagues, with none of the ‘team spirit’ and other benefits stronger working relationships bring to the company?

The short answer is, we don’t yet know — but it’s something to look out for. And it may be the best argument employers have against full-time remote working.

2: We say goodbye to the 9–5

Business gurus have heralded the end of the nine-to-five workday for years. And now that COVID-19 is forcing us to do things differently, that’s never been more likely.

Social distancing rules mean that it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, for us to work as we once did: sitting alongside our colleagues in rows or clusters of desks, and gathering in windowless meeting rooms. For this reason, businesses are having to think outside the box — and the confines of the traditional workday.

Where they’re not asking their staff to continue to work remotely, many businesses will have no option but to instruct their staff to start and end their workdays at slightly different times to make it easier for people to keep their distance.

Beyond this, we may even start to see offices opening on Saturdays and Sundays, with employees’ weekends shifting to allow everyone to get their hours in without having to squeeze into an office space all at the same time.

Yes, this will require a little extra planning and organisation on the manager’s part (more on this below), but as well as helping to keep staff safe in the workplace, things like extended office hours and staggered starts will also mean that those who rely on public transport to get to work will have the option to travel either before or after the ‘rush’.

There are of course industries where this kind of setup would lead to problems, but for many of us this is likely to become the ‘new normal’, with the idea that work can only be done between the hours of 9am and 5pm going the way of the dinosaurs — and not a moment too soon, in this writer’s opinion.

For the employer, this change may mean adopting new tools to make sure everyone on the team knows when everyone else is working, so that meetings, catch-ups and the like can be arranged accordingly. Communication becomes even more important; you can’t rely on everyone in the office being in at the same time. You have to document everything, and communicate methodically instead of sporadically. These adjustments will take time, but it’s important to get them right.

3: There will be much less corporate travel

Even once travel restrictions begin to ease, many of us will still be wary of spending long periods of time in close proximity to others — be it in a car, or on a train or plane. And of course, international business travel will be impacted by various quarantine procedures, potentially turning a two-day trip to the continent into two weeks away. For this reason, we’ll likely see a significant reduction in corporate travel in the coming months or years.

Even in the event that a vaccine is promptly developed for COVID-19, many of us have become much more used to using video conferencing in place of holding face-to-face meetings, and are enjoying the convenience and flexibility it offers.

Certainly, meeting someone for the first time via a screen still feels a bit odd, let alone brokering a business deal or carrying out an appraisal. But over time we’ll get used to it, and when we consider the cost of travel, plus the time it takes to do so, the savings are more than enough incentive for many managers to swap business travel for a handful of online meet-ups.

Sure, for crucial meetings and conferences, it’s still worth travelling; as we mentioned above, you can’t beat face-to-face conversations for forming relationships. But there’s no doubt that we’ll now always consider a virtual meeting before booking those train tickets.

4: Offices spaces are used very differently

So, if remote working becomes more common, and we’re trying to keep our distance when we are in the workplace, what will become of our lovely office spaces?

For many, it’ll be business as usual — albeit with a lot more partitions, hand sanitiser and face masks. But for the rest of us, it’s likely that the time we do spend in the same room will be valued far more than it once was, and therefore used very differently.

Rather than being places where employees simply sit and quietly work away on their own, time spent in the office will likely be devoted more to creative and collaborative projects — the kind of things that would be difficult or impossible over a Zoom call.

Times are tough right now, and office space costs a great deal of money, especially if you’re in a city centre location. Don’t be surprised if businesses start to shrink their physical floorspace in an effort to cut costs in the not-too-distant — and use the spaces they do have a little differently.

5: Scheduling & clocking-in go mainstream

It was inevitable that I’d bring up scheduling and clocking in at some point, but I promise this isn’t just some shoehorned entry!

Staff working remotely, staggered office start times, and employees splitting into sub-teams are all essential ways to maintain social distancing in the workplace. But none of this can be done without some kind of staff rota. And with so many of us working from home now, managers need to know when their employees are starting work, taking breaks, and finishing up for the day.

Cloud-based scheduling and attendance platforms are already being used by more and more businesses where traditionally every employee worked to the exact same pattern. Even we at RotaCloud — all of whom are salaried and most of whom work five days a week — have started clocking in via our mobile phones each morning as we start work from home.

This, I strongly suspect, will become increasingly common across multiple industries as we settle into our new way of working. And while some might recoil at the idea of having their worked hours logged, I like to think that having a record of the hours we’re putting in at work will do something else for us: they’ll remind us when it’s time to stop, take a break, and book some much-needed time off.

Wrap-up

It’s true that many of the predictions I’m making here, and indeed much of the change that we’re already seeing happening in our offices, are a result of a situation that none of us would ever have wished for. COVID-19 has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, devastated millions of others, and put enormous strain on our businesses and economies.

But when it comes to working culture, it’s hard to see how things could ever go back to the way they were before. Indeed, it’s hard to argue that they should go back to ‘normal’, since there was a lot wrong with the way we did once things.

From flexible hours and remote working, to shorter commutes and even improved air quality in our cities as the number of cars on our roads drops, I find it hard not to argue that some of the changes to work we’re seeing are actually quite a good thing.

There will be plenty of work for us to do along the way — many of our internal processes will have to be rewritten, and without our usual chit-chat and office banter, we’ll have to work much harder to maintain our company culture — but for many, the changes that have been forced upon us have ushered in a new era of work, and much of it could be for the better.