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New work order: What coronavirus has taught us about what we want from a workplace

With a split in appetite for where we choose to work in the future, what might this mean for transitioning our workplaces and the ways in which we work?

Emma Caselton & Freddie Simmonds, Seymourpowell

Senior Creative Strategist // Design Strategist

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“Remote working is no longer a dream but a tangible reality…. I’m not going to forget that… or let any future employer forget it.” - SP Survey Respondent, IT sector

The idea of working from anywhere has long been upheld as a Millennial dream, the benefit of a few working in industries like the tech sector. Whilst flexible working approaches have been offered by more progressive employers, such widespread adoption of working at home has never been seen quite like this.

Those able to partake in this mass experiment have started to become accustomed to this new reality. However, working from home has been a mixed experience. Working parents have had to juggle work with childcare and schooling and undoubtedly the anxieties associated with a pandemic have no doubt made this far from a normal experience. Unsurprisingly, this plays out in our survey statistics, with 40% of our respondents reporting work-at-home life feeling harder. However, when asked what changes they would make going forward, 50% said they would like to make working from home a more permanent reality.

What is it about the working-from-home fantasy that, for some, does not live up to the reality? With a split in appetite for where we choose to work in the future, what might this mean for transitioning our workplaces and the ways in which we work?

For most people, the current physical format of the home does not support all of our work needs.

Emma Caselton

Work/life balance

Bruce Daisley, the author of The Joy of Work, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I was chatting to someone who works at a major media outlet last week, and he said we used to have 1,400 people coming into this office every day. For the last eight weeks we've had 30 people and the product hasn't changed.” 

Working remotely can be as productive as being in the office and we have already seen some employers such as Twitter make working from home a full-time option. But we have yet to understand if these levels of productivity can be sustained and of course it depends on how we need to work, whether we thrive on solo and focussed tasks or collaborative and social activities. Making a blanket work-from-home approach could be a risky business strategy.

For some, working from home during lockdown has generated additional pressure and challenges, doing the same activities from home, but without the equipment, technology and environment we would find in the office. Office features like breakout areas and meeting rooms give us variety in our work environment, allowing us to break up the day, a change of scene to boost productivity.

Shrinking home footprints, especially in the city, mean we don’t all have a dedicated space for working. Many have to negotiate for space with other members of the household, contend with domestic distractions or make-do with improvised home offices. Being able to switch between work and home modes is especially difficult when they are both happening in the same space. For most people, the current physical format of the home does not support all of our work needs.

The office is not just the physical environment, it also gives us routine and the daily human interactions which can be a major but under-appreciated influence on our wellbeing and productivity. These nuanced interactions are missed; knowing when someone is too busy to interrupt; the offers of support when we’re visibly overloaded; collaborating with others; taking a break to make tea or have lunch with colleagues. Easily overlooked, these intangible interactions soothe our wellbeing and feed our productivity.

Technological advances, and constraints

As a result of the pandemic we have seen a meteoric rise in the use of professional ‘social’ software such as Slack and Microsoft Teams. Taking inspiration from social networking sites, they aim to boost productivity by capturing team spirit and disrupting the seriousness of an office environment. These tools have been an incredible asset, keeping us connected and paving the way for the first wave of working from home. Over the duration of lockdown, however, with video call fatigue and interrupted workflows, the limitations of using them have become clearer. These technologies have been designed to work alongside face-to-face office interactions. We are now discovering the constraints of having the software without those important intangible team nuances. We need this software to evolve to cater to our new ways of working.

Prior to lockdown, the focus of technology in the office was, quite simply, to get work done. Now, it has to perform a multitude of additional tasks to help us adapt our methods to remote working. The inbox aside, the stream of notifications, collaborative documents and video calls are additional channels to those we worked with in the office environment. They can sometimes feel like an uncontrollable staple of our working day. For those having to commandeer their own personal technology for work-at-home purposes, the line between work and home is even further blurred. Switching off can become as challenging as concentrating on the job.

Our survey suggests people will seek a mixed work environment; working in the office and at from home have different modal benefits. So, where do the solutions to this new working reality lie? We will need help finding the balance between the professional and the domestic.

In the same way it has been the facilitator of this exciting new mixed scenario, technology will play a momentous role. It can be used to manage our progressively more complicated week. It could help organise us; handle our schedules, factor in travelling times and alert us to appointments. Creating smart routines, it could remove the stress of planning daily minutiae, providing a clearer distinction between the different modes of work and home.

The software we use for working could be reimagined and optimised for the home-office we’re learning to adopt.

Freddie Simmonds

Honing the home-office toolkit

Whilst the technology we use day-to-day provides both an invaluable level of connection and capability, it also holds a multitude of distractions: it’s all about context. In much the same way airplane mode works on our phones, a similar function could offer a specific office mode to help with the challenges of working from home. By limiting access to or nudging us away from certain apps during work time, we could reduce distractions and increase productivity. Allowing algorithms to understand our personal productivity rhythms, calls and messages could be filtered out within these windows to maintain a productive flow.

The software we use for working could be reimagined and optimised for the home-office we’re learning to adopt. Taking inspiration from those intangible, face-to-face office nuances, native to the professional environment, more personal and non-verbal communication could drive a next generation of software and hardware with a more “human” experience.

Finding the balance between the physical languages of professional and domestic will be key for the future of home office equipment. Adaptive furniture that accommodates the transition between working and relaxing could provide a duality that defines the two different modes.

Materials and finishes may shift away from those we see commonly used in the commercial environment. Warmer, softer product expressions could be critical in creating products that blend into the home and nurture focus whilst working. By creating products that calm the emotional strain that lockdown has sparked, we could improve people’s mental wellbeing and help people switch off in the long term.

By using everything we have already learnt about our new working scenarios, we can hone the home office toolkit. Making it more intelligent and more human we can re-establish the boundaries between our work and home life, to make us happier, healthier and more productive at work, wherever that is.