• Harriet Scheiner
  • Published: 21 April 2020

Having paused work to make a cup of tea and sit in an armchair, my temporary office breakout area, I find myself reflecting on the ways that COVID-19 may change working life as we know it. 

While in time we will be able to head back to our respective offices, I sense that many decision-makers will look at the work their teams and companies have delivered during the pandemic and see a new opportunity to deliver improved results while reducing costs.

At the same time, attitudes and expectations across a significant section of the workforce will have shifted as a result of the current working from home requirement. The pandemic has forced us to confront and overcome the challenges and prejudices associated with remote working, and many of the old arguments against it will no longer ring true.

Necessity is famously the mother of invention, and like many of us, I now have an insight into colleagues and clients’ varied home office setups courtesy of many video conference calls. Not everyone has the best chair, screen, Wi-Fi connection, phone, or childcare arrangements to make for an ideal work environment. However, being at home is actively allowing us to personalise our work spaces and create a more efficient and focused ‘office’ environment!  

Many forward-thinking companies have stepped up to support employees in this endeavor. Twitter promised to reimburse employees for expenses related to setting up a dedicated home office, including the cost of computer hardware, desks and ergonomic chairs. Similarly, Unilever purchased 1,000 laptops and 4G dongles overnight to ensure its 4,000+ staff in India can work remotely. 

At Capco, we’re also receiving support to help with the purchase equipment needed to work from home, which is ours to keep. With organisations investing in such remote working tools at scale, there is a case for making longer-term use of that equipment and retaining more flexible working patterns. 

Office environments are largely defined by the relationships we build during and after the working day, and the time and effort we invest in maintaining them. Over the past month at Capco, I’ve been delighted to witness the proliferation of scheduled virtual tea breaks, Friday evening VC happy hours and even dial-in dinner parties, where co-workers have the opportunity to connect over an array of online platforms to ensure those vital social bonds are preserved.

It’s been fascinating to watch meeting etiquette and structures emerge and evolve in this environment.  Very soon, we could have a workforce as comfortable interacting via video as they are meeting face to face. 

Of course for us at Capco, being a services firm, it’s vital that our clients are as at ease with working in this way as we are. We are now starting a series of projects where the only interaction our teams have with clients from kick off meeting to final presentation is via video conference and phone. Amazingly, these projects are facing fewer challenges than we expected, with our Capco and client teams embracing digital tools to collaborate in amazing new ways.

It therefore wouldn’t surprise me to see teleconferences start to die out; the improved engagement offered by video, as well as the ability to share screens and interact more meaningfully, have already demonstrated its superiority. Tech giants appear to be backing this horse too; the fact that many have opted to subsidise heavy bandwidth usage underscores the fact that video conferences will remain important tools for businesses, and that companies will keep video conference subscriptions once ‘free trials’ end. There are already early signs that this strategy is happening, with Slack’s paid sign-ups having doubled this quarter to 9,000 net new customers.

The concept of ‘digital natives’ has been around since the mid-90s. Children who have been immersed in the digital world for as long as they could remember will be more comfortable in this environment than adults. As we see universities, schools and even nurseries deliver educational content remotely, we are seeing a new generation for whom interacting, learning and working remotely has already become a reality.

The coronavirus pandemic will be remembered for many reasons, sadly many of them negative. Nonetheless, there’s a strong case to be made that this period could also offer some positive legacy. 
Learning how individuals can best be supported in their own environments, ensuring that the technology and infrastructure to enable those individuals is in place, and creating new norms for digital interactions is all happening in real-time and promises real long-term benefits around work-life balance. 

At the end of all this, businesses may ask themselves: “Why not hire the best qualified person for the job, even if they’re based in a different country?” And, “How much value does our real estate footprint really deliver?”

However, while increased remote working will inevitably lead to a reduction in office footprints, there will still be a role for the office in the post-COVID-19 world. We may all have quickly adjusted to now working remotely with people who we know, but how will this work for new joiners? Face-to-face interactions are important for bonding and tribe building, so will it really be possible for these virtual work worlds effectively introduce new members? 

And in my own experience, I have certainly seen the benefits of bringing people together in person to bounce ideas off one another and co-create innovative digital solutions. It’s hard to imagine a world where there is absolutely no place for such interaction.

This brings me to two final follow-up questions. “How do we redesign offices to better facilitate the gatherings and workshops that work best in a physical space, given that we can free ourselves for the need to have a ‘swiss army knife’ approach to office design?” And “How do we ensure that when people do return to work – in whatever capacity that ends up being – that transition is navigated efficiently and safely?” 

At Capco, we are considering some potentially drastic changes to our future workspaces and remote working policies. To ensure that these changes are confidently adopted across the organisation, we are already carefully considering our plan to get employees re-integrated. This entails early risk mitigation and a comprehensive approach across governance, government instructions, employee re-integration and transition strategy. 

Only time will tell how embedded new working practices become and to what extent organisations boldly transform their workspaces. But in this brave new world, I believe we could reach a point where, for many, their old workspaces are repurposed and working from home becomes the new normal.