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Will working from home be the post-Covid norm?

Just as the term ‘social-distancing’ settled into our collective vocabulary, the population was forced into a radical new working practice. For many, this was long in the waiting, with promises of a revolutionized workplace being touted since the birth of the internet, when remote working was predicted to explode. But disrupting the patterns of behavior that companies have learnt to trust and rely on did not come as quickly as many had hoped, despite the ongoing leaps of progress in the technology that could facilitate it.

Enter Coronavirus. In the last two weeks, corporate giants, freelancers and start-ups alike have all been required to take the plunge into an extreme stress-testing of the work-from-home model. Previously resistant companies have had to adapt and experiment overnight with a progressive idea that, to many, seemed at best risky, and at worst crack-pot. Yet here we are, working en masse from the comfort of our own homes. And while catastrophes bottleneck on the world news channels, it’s safe to say that remote working, so far, hasn’t been one of them.

The benefits of working from home are myriad. Perhaps most importantly, global CO2 emissions are significantly decreased when the twice-daily work commute is eliminated. It’s no secret that air pollution levels have taken a turn for the better during the Coronavirus outbreak. NASA satellite images showed a sizeable decrease in air pollution over China during lockdown, when not only the commute, but also whole manufacturing industries were temporarily shut down.

NASA images showing air pollution levels indicated by orange colouration, before and during the Coronavirus outbreak

But the positive impact on climate change isn’t the only perk of remote working. We save time and money by cutting the commute out of our day, while being home bang on 6pm every evening is a novelty for many. Choosing the right work clothes is less important, and there’s an opportunity for more sleep too if, like me, you can nail rolling out of bed at 8:55am for a 9am meeting.

Lunch is cheaper, and usually better, when prepared from scratch in our own kitchen, not to mention coffee breaks when you can bung a quick wash on or tend to a neglected house plant. Workplace flexibility can be life-changing when it comes to childcare arrangements, and it means we can be on hand for broken boilers and sick household members when needed. There’s less laborious planning with packed lunches and forgotten gym kits… And, let’s face it, life is just generally that bit breezier without certain individuals sharing our space for eight hours a day.

The work itself can benefit too, as companies are forced to embrace the use of new technology. Zoom meetings can and should have replaced many in-person meetings long ago, saving both time and travel. Slack channels are quick and efficient for checking in on project details, while Google Suite provides everything from spreadsheets to cloud storage for those unable to access their company VPN systems remotely.

Larger firms have been subsidizing broadband costs during Lockdown, and investing in laptops, desks and ergonomic chairs to ensure employees’ home offices meet their HR standards. This suggests that some companies are considering this an investment towards a longer-term culture shift towards flexible working. After all, less office space means less rent to pay, so if all runs smoothly, why wouldn’t companies want their employees working remotely?

Plants and natural light are among the recommendations for wellbeing and productivity in the home workplace

Jumping on the opportunity to establish new-user loyalty, digital workplace start-ups and established giants alike have all raced to reach remote-workers during the Covid-19 outbreak, by offering their tools and services for free. Slack has launched a library of free resources supporting businesses around the world to adapt to remote work, including free consultations for companies experimenting with the set up first time. Microsoft has created a new cloud Productivity Suite and made it free to small businesses for the next six months.  Google has launched its own new business subscription, while Zoom has lifted restrictions on its popular video-conferencing service, allowing free-of-charge meetings to continue past the previous limit of 40 minutes.

For the most part, things are going well. Old dogmas are evaporating before our eyes as the nation slips into a progressive new lifestyle – albeit by force. But it would be a stretch to say the last few weeks have been completely issue-free. Some cracks have come into focus too. While technology can support the home office model in an ideal set up, it relies on a speedy internet connection, which not everyone has in their home. One or more people are often glitchy, delayed or inaudible on video conference meetings. Messages are too-easily lost on overcrowded Slack channels (tip: create as many channels as possible and spread the discussions thin!)

Law firms and other companies requiring large amounts of data on VPN systems are unable to run efficiently, or to access their VPN’s at all from home. And less technologically able employees are struggling to master the new digital workplace platforms, and suffering the stigma associated with this.

Also, the home-working model just isn’t for everyone, and the more sociable among us may miss the company of their colleagues. For others, the difficulty lies in knowing how to maintain a life-work balance when working remotely. Anxiety about being seen to slack off if we don’t respond to messages instantly is real, so we’re less inclined to take adequate breaks and, in my experience, end up working at an unsustainable pace. This over-working can lead to high stress levels and a warped impression of what can be achieved in a single day. Over time, the new output level comes to be expected from line managers, while the stress is further exacerbated by fretful employers and clients checking in more frequently than they would in an office scenario for fear of shirking.

Working at a desk with an upright chair is recommended when working from home, to help establish boundaries between your work-space and your home-space

And while articles promoting one-upmanship on interior styling for video conferencing are amusing, let’s not pretend we’re something we’re not here. The majority of the UK population is not living in open-plan lofts or Georgian townhouses. For many, the reality of working at home is far from ideal. Housemates, pets and children can be distracting, while outside noise interference, or working alone all day in a cramped, dimly lit space can have a significant impact on morale and, in turn, motivation.

So, while some will not want to return to work when lockdown ends, others might be finding it hard to cope already. And yet, the positive impact on the environment alone should be enough to rule out any doubt about whether flexible working culture needed a boost. This doesn’t mean that every employee in every office should work from home permanently, or with immediate effect. Progress is gradual, but if the current catastrophe is to serve a single positive purpose, it’s to catalyse the work-from-home movement.

So, let’s hope this period will serve to lift the suspicion surrounding flexible working culture and companies can learn to trust their employees, lose some outdated neuroses, and turn their attention to their far more urgent responsibility of lowering global CO2 emissions.

Image featured at the top of this article and above are both from the exceptional Anna Valdez.

Have you thought about incorporating a mindfulness practice into your home-working routine? Check out our article here for our best tips from meditation to keeping a gratitude journal.

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