The National Day of Reflection observed in the United Kingdom on 23 March marked the anniversary of the first COVID-19 lockdown. It offered a chance to reflect on the many ways in which our daily lives have been impacted since the World Health Organization declared a status of pandemic on 11 March of the previous year, following the rapid spread of a novel coronavirus in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. For many, these dates will forever be remembered as the dawn of the work from home era. The rest, of course, is history in motion. Open, evolving, and science permitting, starting a new chapter.
Yet there are reasons to believe that even after a much-anticipated easing of lockdown restrictions and the ‘end’ of the pandemic in its current form, some of the new habits it has introduced will very much continue to form part of our daily lives. One of these is undoubtedly remote working. Even with a return to some sort of physical presence in our offices, newsrooms, studios, or wherever our workplaces may be, everything suggests that remote will remain.
If, as forecasts suggest, our homes continue to serve as the main stage for our professional performances, it will be because of a proven efficiency and operability. Productivity does not always tally with hours worked, as reflected in the study Work productivity and work-life balance 2020, carried out last year by the EAE Business School in Madrid. Spanish employees, for example, work some of the longest hours in Europe at 1,695 hours per person per year[ELP1] . This is 15-20% more than in Germany (1,363), Denmark (1,410), and Norway (1,424), the nations that dedicate the least hours to work yet are among the most efficient. Productivity levels in Norway are high at 79.90%. Compare this to Spain, which achieved a modest 30%.
[ELP1]Assume this is the case.
This highlights the importance of social life in Spain, and the EAE study recognises the importance of me-time dedicated to leisure and personal care. It does however note the phenomenon of ‘presenteeism’, which at 56% characterises most of the companies included in the survey. As it happens, work-life balance is the second largest concern among those surveyed, behind salary.
Therein lies the crux of the matter. The option of working remotely presents a win-win opportunity for companies and employees to increase productivity, performance, and quality of life. It seems clear that these factors should be prioritised over an adherence to the traditional nine-to-five schedule.
Alphabet / Google, Apple, [ELP1] Twitter, Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants have already adopted this work model indefinitely, supporting the argument for multiple (and mutual) savings on energy, travel, and time. Several are facilitating the transition with their employees; Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has already said that half of his employees will work from home in future. And despite the high numbers of staff dissatisfied with this initiative, we must recognise that videoconferencing, and the many collaborative applications available have made it a lot easier for all of us. We know that remote working delivers. Studies at the universities of Harvard and Princeton in the Unites States reveal that on average, employees would give up 8% of their salary to work from home. The same studies show that 45% of remote workers love their jobs, compared to 24% of their non-remote colleagues.
Unanimity of course is a difficult thing to achieve. When asked about the trend towards a work-from-home future, executive chair of Spanish banking group Santander Ana Botín predicts that “There is going to be a structural change in the way we organise ourselves, the way we market products and the way we work. And everything has a common denominator, which is an intensive use of digital capabilities. The crisis has accelerated the digital revolution. Without digitalisation, the consequences would have been much worse, but we must ensure that it is within everyone’s reach. In surveys we have conducted, we have found there are people who find it more difficult to reconcile their personal and professional lives when they are at home. Teleworking is good up to a point. Most of the professionals at the bank are asking to be able to combine [working in the office with] two or three days of work from home.”
We’re at a moment of real change in the world of work,
driven by big existential crises
So will the home of the future integrate the proportionate share of the office traditionally used by employees? It is already happening, and in various forms. The fully remote office (favoured by the digital nomad), the hybrid model (working a few days in the office and the rest remotely), the ‘remote plus’ model (one week in the office, followed by three days in remote mode). We will see other flexible models adopted, likely as many as suit large employers, small and medium enterprises, and freelancers.
“For some professions, location is central and vital to the activity and not easily reinvented. But for office workers, we are looking at a blank page… We have an incredible opportunity before us. To redefine the way we work and rewrite the rules.”David Mott, founder of British real estate firm Oxford Capital
Perhaps the best way to understand this question is to consider what the future holds for traditional offices. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a London-based human resources association, predicts that most companies will keep hold of their physical offices. But this does not mean that the way we work will not change. The pandemic is “forcing different thinking” from employers about allowing employees to work flexibly, the association’s director Peter Cheese told the BBC a few weeks ago. “We’re at a moment of real change in the world of work, driven by big existential crises”, Cheese argued. Echoing this, founder of British real estate firm Oxford Capital David Mott says: “For some professions, location is central and vital to the activity and not easily reinvented. But for office workers, we are looking at a blank page… We have an incredible opportunity before us. To redefine the way we work and rewrite the rules.”
Be that as it may, the need to monitor both flexibility and a respect for employment rights during this transition is imperative. Optimal remote working requires two basic conditions to be met. One is to have the necessary technology to carry out the required activity. The other is to have an adequate spatial context for the development of our tasks. Only the environment in which both factors are present will provide the ideal result: happiness and increased productivity.