How Did the Pandemic Change our Offices?
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, working from home was perceived as a nice-to-have. However, as the rolling lockdowns became the order of the day when the pandemic peaked, many companies discovered that it became a must-have.
In an article predicting what the future workplace may look like, the World Economic Forum cites the example of Facebook and how it “unveiled a mixed reality workspace, which could help its employees work from home…”
CNBC.com names companies that have switched to full-time remote or hybrid work, including Coinbase, Atlassian, Lyft, Spotify, and Twitter.
This is testimony that the “work from home” (WFH) and “remote school” phenomena, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, have changed our office and school experiences.
But how has the way we locate our offices and work actually changed? That’s if it has. Has the WFH idea affected productivity? Did it impact the demand for office resources like computers and cables? What is the future of work and offices?
If the answers to these questions interest you, read on.
The Impact of Coronavirus on Work and Offices
If there is one area where the effect of the coronavirus is as clear as day, that area is the workplace.
When the World Health Organization declared that Covid-19 had become a pandemic, many countries slammed their borders shut and forced people to remain at home.
However, services and goods were still required during the pandemic, and workers still needed to be paid so they could also pay their bills. This led to millions of companies worldwide letting employees work from home.
Remote Work and Virtual Meetings
A report produced by a group of writers from the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company identifies some observable ways the pandemic changed the way people work.
According to the McKinsey & Company report, “Perhaps the most obvious impact of COVID-19 on the labor force is the dramatic increase in employees working remotely.”
The company notes that remote work has also had other consequences that may not have been envisaged. For example, it reports that some of the executives it surveyed had indicated that they had become aware that some jobs could be easily done from home without the need to come to the office.
The reduction in required office space is likely to negatively affect other downtown businesses such as restaurants, retail establishments, and public transportation.
For instance, McKinsey & Company reports that the success achieved by many teams while using teleconferencing during the pandemic may put a dent in business travel, the most lucrative segment for airlines. The report estimates that 20 percent of pre-Covid-19 business travel may never return.
New Patterns of Work and Roles
In an article published by Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business, Janice Endresen cites experts who suggest that the pandemic created new work patterns.
The idea that the pandemic introduced new patterns of work is also acknowledged by Mary Baker, writing for the website of the technological research and consulting firm, Gartner.com.
Baker notes, “Before COVID-19, critical roles were viewed as roles with critical skills, or the capabilities an organization needed to meet its strategic goals.” She adds, “Now, employers are realizing that there is another category of critical roles — roles that are critical to the success of essential workflows.”
From this changing way of looking at roles, Baker believes that employers should begin to “focus less on roles — which group unrelated skills — than on the skills needed to drive the organization’s competitive advantage and the workflows that fuel that advantage.”
Instead, she suggests that organizations need to encourage employees to acquire the skills that will assist them in taking advantage of multiple opportunities in their career development.
Encouraging the Adoption of Automation and AI
The main reason for shutting down countries and forcing people to remain at home as the pandemic peaked was to avoid the contact that could spread the virus. One of the leading solutions for ensuring that people continued to receive services while remaining safe during the pandemic was automation and the use of artificial intelligence.
This is a view acknowledged by the McKinsey & Company report, which concludes that “Many companies deployed automation and AI in warehouses, grocery stores, call centers, and manufacturing plants to reduce workplace density and cope with surges in demand.”
While this may have allowed the social distancing required during the pandemic, it has a negative effect on jobs as the work that humans could have otherwise done may end up being done by machines.
McKinsey & Company predicts these adverse effects will be felt in food services and customer sales and service roles. However, the growth in e-commerce is likely to positively affect the growth of jobs in the transportation and warehousing sectors.
Mixed Views on Productivity
Did the WFH phenomenon imposed by the pandemic result in improved performance?
If you ask business magnate and investor Elon Musk, he will tell you that “all the Covid stay-at-home stuff has tricked people into thinking that you don’t actually need to work hard.”
Those who still have doubts about what Musk meant probably haven’t seen the email he sent to his staff at Tesla. He wrote:
Everyone at Tesla is required to spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office per week. Moreover, the office must be where your actual colleagues are located, not some remote pseudo office. If you don’t show up, we will assume you have resigned.
Isobel Asher Hamilton of Business Insider cites some economists who debunk Musk’s view, noting that the WFH phenomenon resulted in more productivity.
Hamilton quotes London School of Economics’ economic and financial historian Dr. Natacha Postel-Vinay who says, “Most of the evidence shows that productivity has increased while people stayed at home.”
Postel-Vinay supports her view by noting, “People spent less time commuting so could use some of that time to work, and they also got to spend more time with their family and sleeping, which meant they were happier and ended up more productive.”
Michael Gibbs, Friederike Mengel, and Christoph Siemroth, from the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago conducted a study focusing on WFH and productivity.
They concluded, “Employees worked more, including outside regular office hours, but had less uninterrupted time to focus on task completion as they spent more time in meetings.” They add that employees spent less time being evaluated, coached, and trained, which hurt productivity.
Increased Demand for Cables
At the height of the pandemic, nearly all activities had to be done online. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the demand for networking equipment and cables escalated.
Engineering360, a website focusing on content targeting technicians and engineers, reports an increase in demand for fiber-optic cable. This is because there was an increased demand for broadband capacity to meet the traffic created by the fact that many people were working and learning from home.
Even though cable installation for a home office is not rocket science, many people attempting to set up home offices often realize that there is more at play than just connecting the cable to the gadget.
The Future of Work and Offices
We can learn several things about work and offices from the pandemic, and it will not be possible to unlearn these and return to the way things once were, even when the pandemic is over.
The Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants (AESC) puts things in perspective, “Gone are the days of show up, get work done, go home, repeat.” The same organization adds, “Today, work is flexible and collaborative and increasingly creative.”
It observes, “Organizations are moving away from traditional office environments and toward spaces that mirror how we really work and live.”
The AESC has some wise words for those companies that will listen; “Consider trends like remote work, video conferencing, cloud computing, and other innovative disruptions affecting physical spaces.”