When we return to the office, life will never be the same again
Staff are happier working from home, but there is still room for collaborative spaces, writes Mark Price

Staff are happier working from home, but there is still room for collaborative spaces, writes Mark Price.

For almost a year now I have been working from home. I've visited London just twice. The Prime Minister's route out of lockdown brought home the reality my routines will change again soon - but how?

I don't claim to have a crystal ball on the future of work but I do know about how employees are thinking right now. In May last year my WorkL digital platform launched a 'working from home survey' to complement our longstanding 'workplace survey'. Month on month we've been plotting employee sentiment to get a picture of the future of work as best we can.

There is a feeling being mooted that in this third lockdown people are less happy and more frustrated. While I don't have any data for that in terms of general happiness, I can tell you from our research that it's not the case for people working from home.

First of all people working from home score their workplace happiness at 77pc; a whopping 15 percentage points higher than when they weren't regular home workers. And the biggest increase comes from non-management, up 20 percentage points from 57pc to 77pc. They clearly prefer more self-management. But let's look at monthly tracking of key questions. The scores for 'feeling that information is freely shared' are much higher than previously and have been steadily increasing month on month from circa 70pc in August to around 73pc now. Organisations are getting much better at sharing and listening. Asked if they had enough information to do their job well, non-managers now score higher than their managers.

The same pattern repeats itself with questions around well being, which is trending upwards. The only exception is when asked about feeling anxious and depressed, the scores have remained constant, at home, at work and pre- and post-Covid. People have traded one set of anxieties for another.

As a result of these improvements we are seeing employees saying that they have a better relationship with their manager. Because non-managers are being given more information, trust and responsibility they also feel better developed, scoring 12 percentage points higher at home.

But there are things home workers are missing about travelling to work in the office. Non-managers miss working with their colleagues more than managers. And we have seen a month on month trend in this lack of sociability becoming more of an issue, as have people feeling isolated. The other area that needs watching is that homeworkers feel they are less productive now than they were last summer. But productivity scores still remain higher than for those not working from home.

In summary there can be no doubt that those who have been working from home have been significantly happier, particularly those not in management. They have more money, more information, more freedom and responsibility and their manager and organisations have taken better care of them. With more than 80pc of managers now saying they are planning for more flexible home/office working coupled with the positive response to home working, what will change?

To start with, organisational structure and culture may need a rethink if people are working more remotely and independently. Teams may need to become more flexible and project based.

Career development is another challenge. How do training and development work in a remote and fractured organisation? A balance must be found between self-development and structured development. This could make it harder to decide promotions and assess workforces.

The role of managers will come under the microscope. If non-management employees have more information, responsibility and trust, what will the manager's role be? If new technology and AI can allocate people to tasks and manage resources more successfully than a manager, will technical skills be less relevant and leadership and coaching skills more?

And finally what does this all mean for the office? There is no doubt that businesses will reduce office space; we've already seen announcements from big companies to that effect. The office will be a more collaborative work space. Rather than cubicles of workers tapping away on their keyboards, it will be designed to host team gatherings and be a place for important face-to-face interaction, boosting creativity. After all, one reason workers will be wanting to commute to the office is to catch up at the water cooler.

Lord Price is a former trade minister, the former managing director of Waitrose and founder of WorkL and WorkL for Business.

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