Guest contributor Neil Usher
‘Everything has changed! Nothing will be the same again!’ We’re writing the obituary for the office, struggling to find something good to say about it. Isolation does strange things to people. It turns us all into soothsayers. The clarity that denied us when commuting and juggling the usual daily chaos reveals itself while we are staring at the opposite wall. At least we think it has. Only it hasn’t.
So what’s really going to happen?
What we do know is that many of us can work from home if we have to, that there are workarounds for the tasks and interactions we took for granted in the workplace. Whether we would want to do it every day we’ll know more of after many more weeks of it.
We’ve been treated to more ‘top tips’ on working from home than we ever believed possible. We could be forgiven in reading LinkedIn for believing that we lack purpose, structure, direction, until we start doubting ourselves. And yet almost all of the guidance being offered by ‘experts’ (how anyone can be an expert in something so personal is questionable) is directly contrary to that given in the years previous. Where we were once encouraged to shed structure, routine and discipline, to free our spirit, we’re now told its best for us to map our day and stick to it. The spirit is clearly advised to stay bottled in a lockdown for our own sanity.
What our new expectations and needs will look like
Yet when the lockdown is lifted, both we and the organisations we work for will be returning to the office. It’s likely we’ll want different things.
We’ll be so accustomed to physical distancing we’ll instinctively continue. The crowded train, the busy reception, the workbenches, the shared kitchen – all the spaces we’ve been denied will be sources of anxiety. Along with the desk, keyboard and mouse that someone else used, but we don’t know who. The colleague sniffling will be frogmarched out of the building before unhooking their rucksack. We’ll be wary, sensitive and needing of our own space. Wellbeing will be an existential issue, not a free apple and a lunchtime yoga session. We’ll expect to be looked after and our wishes respected.
Our organisations meanwhile will be rueing the exorbitant cost of its office space and the lack of flexibility available in its commitments to do anything about it. Already a third un-utilised before the pandemic, it will resemble a rotten borough with the patchy attendance times of those avoiding the rush hour and the freely exercised choice to work from home a day or two a week – because we now know we can.
The prevailing response, common for a decade or more, to under-used space has been to try and shed some on the open market and ask people to increasingly share what remains, all dressed up as ‘agile working’. Yet that approach may no longer ‘wash’. The last thing we want is greater proximity, even less so more sharing of space and the stuff that goes with it.
It’s been mentioned that perhaps we simply shut the office on Friday as it’s already almost empty anyway. But that’s another day’s costs down the swanny, and organisations are trying to save money not torch it.
Organisations will need to plan. Free choice will be constrained choice. And we’ll welcome it.
The shape and nature of each team’s week will be mapped and understood. We’ll schedule when a team needs to be in the office, and when its members can work from home. We’ll make sure that each day is balanced, with roughly equal numbers in attendance. We’ll share space with those we need to work closely with, so we’ll have the full benefit of collaboration – if we can remember what that feels like. That’s why we’re there, after all – to work with our colleagues. If we’re just doing our own stuff, we can do that at home.
Overnight, cleaning and sanitisation will take on a new importance. Far from the cursory vacuum and dust-down at 6pm we’re familiar with, it will be a forensic operation. We’ll find our desks and peripherals certified as clean. When we take up a space, that’s where we’ll stay most of the day – we certainly won’t move desk. We’ll meet in plentiful space, maintaining distance.
And so, we get our safety and hygiene, and all the benefit of working together when needed, and the organisation saves money and gets its flexibility. We’re all happy, and all ready. Should the siren sound again and we’re back at home, we’ll know exactly what to do. We won’t need the top ten tips, and we won’t feel lost and disassociated. We’ll have learned a lot about each other, our colleagues and our organisation, and be all the better for it. Something good will come of it. It has to.
ABOUT NEIL USHER
For more than 25 years in the property profession, Neil Usher has been there and done it (strategy, development, transactions, workplace creation, change programmes, capital projects, operational management) at scale for a host of large and diverse organizations.
The common theme in each case; organizations with a desire to transform their workplace, in need of the vision, plan and creativity to make it happen. From a blank piece of paper, he has created amazing people-centric workplaces across the globe, in Australia, Singapore, America, Canada, South Africa and Europe.
Most recently he completed a multiple-award-winning workplace in West London, one of the world’s largest, most progressive and amenity-rich agile environments.
View Neil Usher’s LinkedIn profile.
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