The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on the world of work, with offices closed across the country, many of us working from home and more than 8 million people on furlough. But what changes will be here for the long haul, and what does the future of the workplace hold? Here, three experts have their say.
Around 45% of us have been able to work remotely during lockdown, meaning office buildings up and down the country have lain empty since mid-March. For most, cramming onto a packed train at 8.30am, sharing a microwave or cutlery with colleagues and sitting round a table in a stuffy meeting room are all prospects from a life left behind.
But what can we expect from work life post-lockdown, and beyond? We asked a sociologist who studies flexible working, a leading virologist and a human resources professor to give their predictions.
Working from home
Prior to lockdown, working from home had a reputation in many workforces as being a treat. It was seen as a permitted adjustment for a lucky few or (let’s be honest) something people did when they were hungover and didn’t want to be marked off sick. But, according to Dr Heejung Chung, reader in sociology and social policy at the University of Kent, lockdown has changed perceptions of the practice for good, as companies have seen employees working at “a surprisingly productive level”.
Dr Chung now predicts a shift away from the traditional 9-5 office-based working. “This whole culture is predominantly based on manufacturing-based working cultures where you had to start the machines at certain times,” she tells Stylist. “Even in a lot of factories now, flexi-time and more flexible shift work is possible. So, it’s a habit more than anything to do with productivity and performance measures.”
Dr Chung also expects staggered start and finish times to become more normalised, something she envisages having positive knock-on effects for workers, and particularly women. “Flexible working definitely helps women, especially mothers, get back into the labour market and maintain relatively high-paying jobs,” she explains.
The number of women being made redundant during and after pregnancy has almost doubled to 54,000 since 2005, and pregnancy discrimination is still rife in the workplace. Similarly, figures show that the gender pay gap widens dramatically after the birth of a woman’s first child. Flexible working patterns and the option to work from home could help.
Increased freedom in when and where we work could change everything about our working lives, and even where we choose to live. Those who feel compelled to move to big cities for work reasons alone may find themselves able to take a job remotely - something that could impact not just workers themselves, but also the country’s distribution of wealth and resources.
“This opens up a huge possibility for a lot of what we consider to be the less economically developed regions to really prosper because affordable rental spaces, as well as affordable housing, might draw in lots of professionals who are now able to work from home,” says Dr Chung. “It’s a really fantastic way to address some of the geographical inequalities that we see in the UK.”
Could there be a time when every office worker is employed remotely? Professor Nick Bacon, professor of human resource management at Cass Business School, believes this is unlikely.
Pre-pandemic, around 15% of people were regularly working from home. In April this year, 45% of workers said they’d worked from home at some point in the last week. As lockdown eases, Professor Bacon says this figure is likely to drop back down again but he expects that, long term, around 20% of workers will sometimes work from home.
Social distancing and office hygiene measures
With social distancing now incorporated into every aspect of our lives, many are wondering if its imprint will permanently change the way we interact with colleagues. “I think it’ll slide,” Professor Bacon tells Stylist. “I think as soon as people don’t have to obey social distancing, that will go out the window.” Increased handwashing, however, he hopes is here to stay - possibly meaning fewer instances of colds and flu even once coronavirus is no longer headline news.
A shift in the way offices are structured and maintained could also contribute to preventing illness in future, says Dr Julian Tang, consultant virologist at the Leicester Royal Infirmary and honorary associate professor of respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester. “The common cold still puts people off work for several days through the year,” he adds.
Dr Tang points to the ways in which south Asian countries have adapted since the SARS outbreak in 2003, and suggests that masks could become more normalised in public spaces and on public transport in the longer term, as well as in offices. “If you wear a mask in the office, people will appreciate the situation,” he tells Stylist. “If you’re talking to a colleague and you’re looking at the same computer screen, over a project, for example, you’re going to be closer than two metres together for sure.”
Dr Tang says that keeping windows open can help limit the spread of the virus. “If you open the windows and there’s a good airflow through the whole office area, and people choose not to wear masks, that dilution and air movement should hopefully carry away the virus before it gets into people’s breathing zones,” he explains. “But that cannot be guaranteed.”
Hiring and pay
We are likely heading into a recession but it still isn’t clear how long this might last. During what’s called a V-shaped recession, there’s a steep but short-lived period of economic decline followed by a strong recovery. If this is what we see in the coming months, Professor Bacon suggests that many companies will resume hiring in three to four months. “If we have a prolonged recession, which maybe continues between August and Christmas, and we don’t start to see economic recovery, then I think we’ll start to see increasing unemployment,” he adds.
While working from home may open up opportunities for some (for example, those not living in major cities), Professor Bacon thinks this could have a knock-on effect on pay. Companies will quickly realise that employees are no longer compelled to live in high-cost areas like London and don’t have to take on such significant transport costs. “I think there’ll be a lot of downward pressure on pay in many sectors and homeworking is part of that,” he adds.
Furlough and redundancies
The furlough scheme has now been extended until October, with employers being given the option to bring back staff on a part-time basis from August if they pay a percentage of their wages. New data shows there are currently 8.4 million workers on the furlough scheme in the UK. But what is the future of furlough? Will it return if there’s a second wave of coronavirus later this winter?
Professor Bacon thinks it’s unlikely. “We’ve incurred significant government debt,” he says. “You do reach a limit whereby governments don’t want to take on any more debt. And I think, at that point, we would start to see unemployment rise.”
New research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) published this week found that mothers were 23% more likely than fathers to have lost their jobs - either temporarily or permanently - and 14% more likely to have been furloughed. Dr Chung predicts that, at the end of the first round of furlough in June, we may see job losses among parents (voluntarily or otherwise) if their children are unable to go back to school.
Socialising and team dynamics
Dr Chung points out that, in some areas like London and Silicon Valley, “virtual offices” already exist where every employee works remotely. “How do you now enable people to feel a sense of belonging and also have those casual conversations?” she asks. Chung points to online chatting facilities like Slack, which are often used for talking about things that aren’t necessarily job-focused, alongside task-orientated chat.
“Because physical proximity does help provide that psychological sense of togetherness and of being close, some companies do ‘meet-ups’ in which the whole purpose is to really build that sense of closeness,” Dr Chung says.
However, Professor Bacon thinks it’s unlikely that totally virtual offices will become the norm. “I think a lot of employees themselves will want to get back to work,” he tells me. “There are things about meeting friends and building relationships in the office, as well as time away from home, which are very valuable.”
Professor Bacon predicts that, once offices reopen (something he expects to happen in around four to five months), meetings with new clients will continue to mainly take place in person. With existing colleagues or known clients, Professor Bacon thinks there may be an uptick in virtual meetings, resulting in a rise in the number of meetings held in total. “Online meetings are easy to attend,” he explains. “So they’re easy to schedule, you can put them in and there’s no travel involved.”
What about greeting others in the office? Will handshakes ever be back? “Tapping feet and tapping elbows will continue as a jokey gesture between friends for quite a while,” he predicts. “Partly because it’s a tension reliever as well. If people are not quite sure what to do, it’s a way of injecting humour and friendliness into the meeting.”
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