Recent reports and surveys carried out with employees across the UK show a significant shift in expectations for what working will look like in the future. Nearly half of those surveyed believe that flexible working will increase, and a third think that the amount that they work from home will increase.
However, not all employees are optimistic about these projected changes, with those surveyed by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) during the first two weeks of lockdown reporting increased musculoskeletal complaints and declining diet, fitness, and mental health as a consequence of working from home.
With the new working from home arrangements polarising office workers, let's consider the virtual workplace and the ‘new normal’ - and why employers should think cautiously when re-imagining their future workplaces, as there will inevitably be new workplace challenges emerging.
What might the office of the future be like?
With social distancing measures remaining in place for some time, re-opening office spaces will require fewer people present to ensure that appropriate distances can be maintained between people. This might mean that employers decide to keep some of their workforce working from home, whilst allowing a number of others to return to the office.
Dividing the workforce up in these ways might enable business owners to save money on rental and other overhead costs, since in principle they will be able to hire more people without needing to pay for more office space to accommodate them all.
But a more sparsely populated office and more dispersed workforce also comes with costs that employers should carefully consider when re-imagining how their ‘new normal’ might look.
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Why the virtual workplace might not be the best way forward
While there are undeniable upsides to allowing employees to work from home (workers frequently report increased levels of productivity and greater job satisfaction owing to lack of commuting), employers should also be alert to the possible downsides. Failing to consider the full impact that a wholly or predominantly virtual workplace will have on business could result in some unpleasant surprises down the line.
Fewer people in the office might mean fewer new ideas
Working at the office provides many employees with a sense of community, which in turn fosters engagement and encourages collaboration between different teams. Studies show that when the option for employees to communicate face to face is removed, overall communication levels drastically decrease. From an employer’s perspective, a reduction in communication can spell disaster if it means that staff are not being managed properly. It might also cause some employees to become disaffected and to begin looking elsewhere for a job where they feel more engaged.
Impromptu communication can also encourage new ideas and creativity; something that can be more difficult to achieve in pre-scheduled virtual meetings. If your business thrives on creativity and ideas generation, siloing employees to separate workspaces might signal a sharp decline in innovative ideas.
Given these potential shortfalls, employers can implement strategies to ensure that communication is not sacrificed when working remotely. Regular check-ins over voice or video chat between managers and staff can help to ensure that employees stay engaged. And putting into place new workflows which foster collaboration can help to mitigate the potential losses to spontaneous interactions.
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The decline of office working might decrease motivation and job satisfaction
The IES survey showed that a third of those surveyed felt isolated working from home. This is especially likely to be the case for those employees who live alone, but those who look after young children may also feel isolated without adult company to get them through the working day. Feeling isolated can have a negative impact on mental health, leading to depression and problems sleeping, which in turn are likely to impact employee engagement and productivity.
Employers can address these concerns by making time for staff social events such as weekly virtual pub quizzes. They might also check in regularly on staff who they know are living alone or looking after young children to ensure that they are coping okay with working from home.
While it might feel as though we are living in an age of technological advancement, as anybody who has attended a Zoom meeting over the last few months will know, virtual working brings with it a unique set of technical problems. It can be difficult to catch up on what has been said in a virtual meeting when the speaker freezes, and variable, unpredictable internet speeds amongst employees compound this issue.
Employers should be mindful of potential losses in communication that come from holding meetings virtually, and plan around this by ensuring that all employees are unambiguously informed about important information.
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‘The new normal’ and the virtual workplace
Ultimately, what the new normal looks like will depend upon the unique needs of the business and the employer. With the drastic changes brought to working through the lockdown, it can be easy for employers to overlook the benefits of the more traditional ways of working.
As always, safety during these times must remain priority, and the protection of employees should be an employer’s number one priority. But when imagining the workplace of the future, employers should carefully weigh up the pros and cons of the newly normalised virtual workplace before making any big decisions.
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Written by Kate Taylor
Kate is a Content Marketing Executive for myhrtoolkit. She is interested in SaaS platforms, automation tools for making HR easier, and strategies for keeping employees engaged.