In just a few months, the pandemic has drastically reshaped our experience of work. But will the transformation be permanent? Christobel Hastings investigates how our working life will evolve in the months to come…
Six months ago, millions of UK workers hurriedly packed their desks and opened their laptops at home.
Many of us believed that after a few weeks, the coronavirus outbreak would subside, and we’d return to the office feeling refreshed for having skipped the stress of the morning commute.
Few of us could have imagined that half a year later, as weeks stretched into months of lockdown, that the way we live and work would change forever.
Six months later, and remote working is now the “new normal”.
We’ve gone from setting up shop on our kitchen counters and spending entire days in our pyjamas to carving out new workspaces, navigating Zoom meetings and fine-tuning our work-life balance.
The pandemic has blown apart the myth that remote working doesn’t work; and in the place of set working hours and rigid employment rules comes a new wave of transformation.
So, what can we expect the future of work to look like?
The age of flexibility
If there’s one word that we’re going to be hearing a lot more of in the future, it’s flexibility.
Consider the statistics: according to polling from global research firm Gartner, 30% of employees surveyed worked remotely at least part of the time before the pandemic.
Now, 48% - around half of employees – expect to work from home once it has ended.
That’s a significant shift in our attitudes, and one that signals that flexibility is set to become the norm rather than just a trend.
Naturally, the change in our working arrangements has meant a significant shift in the way we organise our day.
“People have more freedom to fit in personal activity into the working day - a walk outside, an online exercise class,” says Helen Tupper, co-founder of Amazing If and host of the Squiggly Careers podcast.
“They can work from the comfort and safety of their home. They don’t have to dress for work. For a lot of people, it’s liberating! Starting their working day is as simple as sitting down at a desk and opening their laptop without some of the pressures that were present pre-Covid”.
Working from home doesn’t have be about moving your traditional desk and chair set-up to your home, either.
Thanks to the advancement in technology, it can be working from your sofa to get the best light, heading to the café for a change of scene and moulding your working day around what makes you feel good and what allows you to be best productive.
London-based analyst Jessica has been working from home since the beginning of March. The changes in her daily routine, she says, have been overwhelmingly positive.
“I was sceptical about remote working at the start of lockdown. But the level of flexibility has been amazing, and being able to stop for a workout or take lunch whenever I feel like it has actually made me more motivated to get back to my work”.
The increased level of freedom, she explains, has had a knock-on effect on other areas of her life. “Because I’ve more headspace, I’ve even enrolled on an MBA which I’ll be studying part-time over the next two years, which I never would have dreamed possible before the pandemic”.
Jessica’s positive experience of remote working is part of a growing appreciation for work flexibility.
According to The Working from Home during Covid-19 Lockdown Project conducted by the University of Kent and the University of Birmingham, 86% of those surveyed worked from home at some point during the UK lockdown.
Interestingly though, most respondents (including 52% of all parents and 66% of non-parents) noted that they would be keen to continue working flexibly in the future after experiencing increased productivity, higher levels of wellbeing, and a better work-life balance.
Employees aren’t the only ones coming around to the idea of remote working.
Until now, managerial perceptions around remote working have been largely negative, with bosses sceptical about the productivity levels of people who were physically out of sight.
Even though all employees in the UK who have been with their company for more than six months have the right to request flexible working, according to a 2019 poll from the Trades Union Congress, one in three (30%) requests are turned down.
Now, with the extraordinary shift to remote working throughout the pandemic – not to mention proven levels of productivity – there’s far more understanding.
“Bosses are a lot more flexible than they ever would have been before, allowing people to work in ways that they wouldn’t before,” says psychologist and clinical director of Private Therapy Clinic, Dr Becky Spelman.
“With all this drastic change there’s actually amazing innovation going on and amazing flexibility in the way that employers are thinking, and this is leading to far more enjoyment for people, and a lot more work-life freedom.”
We only have to look to the example of some of the world’s major companies to see how minds are changing.
Tech giants Facebook and Google were some of the first to extend their remote leave until the end of the year, while other Silicon Valley firms like Twitter and Square recently offered their employees the option of working from home “forever”.
The chief executive of Barclays, Jes Staley, even declared that a big city office “may be a thing of the past”.
Finding a balance
There’s a flipside to the flexibility, of course.
With no commute, or physical space to demarcate the parameters between work and our personal lives, it can become difficult to manage the two worlds.
“Pre-Covid, our working day had some natural boundaries,” says Tupper. “The commute, walking between meetings, travelling, grabbing coffee or lunch allowed us to press pause. Now these breaks have disappeared, and our boundaries are blurred.”
Many people are also missing the benefits that comes with being in physical proximity with their colleagues.
“The working day is longer and our ability to switch-off is harder,” Tupper continues.
“Many people are missing the collaboration, connection and feeling of choice. The risk is that work becomes transactional - we reduce our efforts and interactions to emails, IMs and back to back Zooms. Virtual presenteeism is rife. As humans we seek belonging and connection. The longer we work in this way, the more we realise what we’re missing”.
Clearly, being thrown into a vastly different working space is a lot different to embracing the possibilities of flexible working of your own volition.
“Change is difficult for people and does require a lot of adaption,” says Spelman.
“For people who really enjoy the contact of having face-to-face interactions with their colleagues, some are missing being in the office and feel that they can’t build the same rapport with people, and some are really not so fond of doing everything over a Zoom call. Some people are missing how things used to be, and they’re not enjoying that they’ve been forced into this sudden change”.
So how can we make the best of our new flexible lives while staying connected to the broader working ecosystem that we’ve always known?
A virtual world
One way to help us adjust to a flexible schedule going forward is to consider that the traditional idea of a ‘work-life balance’, with our time split evenly between the office and our homes, is shifting beneath our feet.
Life and work as we know it is rapidly evolving, and we can’t remain wedded to the idea of a clean separation between work and our personal lives.
Rather, what we need to do is expand our definition accordingly.
The new “work-life balance” is more likely to involve hybridity between the workplace and our homes, whether in the form of remote working, part-time working, flexitime or staggered hours, and greater integration will help us make room for both in a new working world.
If you’ve worked remotely at some point during the last six months, then you’ll also know that technology is the linchpin of our new virtual lives.
Granted, not every job can be performed out of the office. But research has found that a surprisingly large proportion of jobs can be accomplished remotely; and, as the population of people working flexibly continues to grow, it’ll surely be met with a new wave of innovation.
Not only does this mean an uptick in virtual communication, but it also signals a need to develop digital skills and online dexterity, no matter what form your new working arrangements may take. Tools like the Logitech MX Anywhere 3 mouse, for instance, will help support remote working, wherever you happen to open your laptop.
The compact mouse has been specifically designed for mobile and remote working, which means you can use it from the home office, the cafe, the airport lounge and pretty much wherever your work takes you.
Usual remote working bugbears like your mouse snagging and struggling to move over any surface that isn’t a traditional desk have been thought through and remedied - this one works on any counter including glass.
Equally, with most of us using our tablets or laptops as our second and third work screen, the MX Anywhere 3 can connect to three different devices, allowing you to hop from each one to maximise your efficiency.
Future by design
The case for flexibility in our new working lives isn’t something we should embrace purely because a post-pandemic world is facing permanent transformation.
From a broader perspective, liberal “work-from-anywhere” arrangements could change how we think about our jobs, and even improve our wellbeing.
We’re no longer looking at work as something synonymous with unnaturally early starts, miserable commutes and locked locations.
“People who have the choice to design their working day and their working way are more fulfilled and more productive,” says Tupper.
“Work on our terms feels rewarding and an equitable trade for the hours and effort we put in”. This is certainly the case for Jessica, who, after six months of remote working, has noticed a marked shift in how she views the nature of work.
“For the first time in my working life, I’ve actually felt in control. All the time that I wasted making trips into the office and sitting through endless meetings has been redirected into my work, and it’s paying off in my performance.
“These days, my overriding thoughts about work aren’t related to stress, anxiety or having too much on my to-do pile. I’m actually remembering why I like my job. And that’s a really good feeling to have.”
Take your working from home set-up to the next level with the Logitech MX Anywhere 3.