City desk or spare room – or both?

As we exit lockdown, companies are asking themselves where does the future of work lie - city desk or spare room? Bentley Systems’ Mark Coates sat down with Elizabeth Kavanagh of built environment consultancy PCSG to discuss this pressing issue.

Later this month, the government’s working-from-home guidance is set to end. The UK workforce will be preparing to vacate the spare room, dust off its workwear, and re-acquaint itself with the train app. Or will it?

The year of working from home has prompted many organisations to rethink how we work. Accepted ways of working have been left looking outdated and organisations from the Bank of England to city blue-chips have waded into the debate around what the ‘new working normal’ will look like. 

The lower quality of collaboration and communication that results from virtual working could damage productivity, the bank has warned. Others are confident that allowing workers flexibility around their working arrangements will support output in the long term.

I am a personal fan of the hybrid model, with a ‘two-day or four-day fortnight’ where people work two or four days in the office over two weeks. However, I recognise that my opinion on the subject may say more about my own personality than what the industry should follow. That’s why I was thrilled to speak with fellow Bentley colleague Elizabeth Kavanagh, senior people and change consultant, and to hear her opinion as to what the future holds. 

During our check in, we talked about the dilemmas of hybrid working and how to make remote working sustainable for the infrastructure sector. I began by talking with Kavanagh about the challenge of meetings where some participants were in the office and others joining from home. She explained how this scenario could play out.

“I think generally, we will all be considering whether and when an in-person environment is useful. For us, as a digital-focused business, remote work has felt pretty natural and our clients have embraced it. I see no reason why hybrid meetings shouldn’t be accepted as something we do.”

The challenges ahead

Kavanagh and I saw that there are two dilemmas facing us as we ease out of lockdown. The first is how to take the benefits of home working and translate them into a hybrid model that capitalises on what we have learned through the pandemic. The second is the skills gap question - especially pertinent for the construction and infrastructure sectors - and what impact new ways of working are likely to have on that. How essential is it now, for example, that workers are within a commutable distance, particularly if their role is digitally focused?

“A key lesson from lockdown has been that commuting takes our most precious commodity - our time,” explained Kavanagh. “Throughout lockdown, we have had the experience of a world of work that forced most of us all onto the same virtual platform. One of the big benefits of this is that it felt like an equitable playing field. So, the choice to work from home could be very attractive in itself and help us to recruit.” 

A testament to this thought is the evidence showing that the proportion of UK jobs advertised as “remote working” roles has more than quadrupled in the past year.

Home working win-win?

From my own seat at the table and with attending multiple industry meetings virtually each week over the last 12 months, I have seen numbers and interaction grow within meetings. More importantly, I have seen a new level of openness and collaboration, which is all good. 

For some, home working has been a win-win. They are avoiding the commute, finding time to exercise, and managing their caring commitments around working. But not all workers have embraced the change. Those in the ‘living at work’ camp have struggled with overwork. “There is a rise of digital presenteeism, where some have ended up feeling like they’ve been seat-belted into their chair for a long-haul fight,” Kavanagh explained.

It is also worth noting that extroverts and introverts have had a different experience of home working. Those of us who feel more introverted have enjoyed being able to secure the quiet time that we need to think offered by the home environment (once children returned to school, at least). The extroverts amongst us have had a harder time adjusting to seeing few people and are keener to return to more social ways of working.

Water-cooler collaboration

Through these lockdowns, we have learned that there is a value in socialising with our teammates which we missed out on. Perhaps this is where the true value of the office will lie as we move forward – as a place for collaboration, with the physical space better designed to reflect this.

Chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak has been keen to point out the benefits of learning that occur when we meet at the water cooler and the extent to which the younger generation rely on this interaction to advance their knowledge and experience. 

Moving forward

For me, the only way to motivate our teams and to sustain multiple generations in our workplace (with their different preferences for ways of working) is to offer the only employee benefit that fits all - flexibility. To achieve that, we need to consider the practical steps and approaches to work that will allow it to happen. 

Take those hybrid meetings we talked about. I predict the number one stressor will be the quality of interaction, the stepping on toes (or, in this case, voices) just to get your point across. We need to ensure that we maintain equitable ability to engage those in the room and those at home. But how do we do that, and how can we best run meetings with a part of the gathering physically present and part online?

By defining the aims and outputs of the meeting, including who needs to contribute or make decisions and who needs to listen in. Comprehensive planning for the type of social interaction you wish to have will be key. The greater the level of planning, the more successful the meeting. 

Above all, employers need to keep trusting their employees and recognise that, if productivity is consistent, the spare room and the city desk both have roles to play in our future world of work.

Mark Coates is strategic industry engagements director for the UK at Bentley Systems and Elizabeth Kavanagh, is PCSG’s senior people and change consultant.