Those of you who are regular readers will be aware that I have long been a proponent of flexible working conditions. The days when office work required an employee’s physical presence at a desk began disappearing the in the early Noughties with the advent of the worldwide web and internet cafés. These were then superseded with wi-fi first in regular tea and coffee shops and then its wider availability in shopping malls, airports and other pedestrian traffic areas, not to mention increasingly cheaper and more reliable home connectivity.
In short, why would it be necessary to chain your staff to that desk when they can be equally as effective and productive out of the office? And when they do come in, do they need a specified room, cubicle or workspace when they can ‘’hot desk’, grabbing any available plug in point in the building to log in and link up? This system works well for corporate giants including Google whose Silicon Valley headquarters are amongst the most innovative and flexible in the world, centred, as they are, around employee happiness and physical and mental welfare
So that was the trend, long before Covid forced staff worldwide to hide out and hole up in isolation, as entire companies closed their doors and made a distance plan to keep their businesses running under an entirely new modus operandi, effectively enforced trialling of a work model already in place in many forward-thinking bodies.
And of course in true ‘necessity being the mother of invention’ style, a tiny operation hosting a video conferencing application entitled Zoom suddenly came to the fore. In January this year if offered a second share sale of 4,4 million new shares, to raise US$1.5 billion for further acquisitions and strategic investments , valuing its stock at 10 times its value in 2019 with an assumed value of US$3337, up from a pre-pandemic $36,. This humungous growth was due entirely to the sudden essential requirement for virtual meetings in a brave new world where face-to-face interaction was either impossible, unwise or illegal.
All the signs are that distance working will remain the new norm, even after all Covid restrictions are lifted. I chanced upon a photo in an online newspaper this week showing Whitehall in London, home of most of the British government’s ministries and normally housing thousands of civil servants beavering away conducting official business and oiling the wheels of governance. Yet in the middle of the working day, that major thoroughfare in one of the world’s most important capital cities was virtually deserted. Although ministers themselves and their close aides have returned to their offices, the vast army of civil servants who carry out the donkey clerical work are still in the main working from home. This report appeared in The Times this week, explaining the absenteeism
“The vast majority of Whitehall civil servants will not return full-time to the office under plans that would cap some at two days a week.
Flexible working is likely to become permanent in the service, with plans being drawn up that would mean many staff spend most of their time at home. Despite ministers’ praise for the office, civil servants are not being ordered back to their desks as officials plan a “30/70 model” for many jobs.”
Make no mistake, this is a sea change in the way government business is to be conducted. It’s on thing for other institutions to migrate to distance working but for the seat of government to conclude that it can operate equally effectively when staff work from home is a whole new ball game and will change the face of central London forever. It’s not outside the bounds of possibilities that in the near future, all that high-priced office space may be sold off or rented out to private organisations or if the distance trend spreads and office space is simply no longer required across the board, then those venerable old buildings may be turned in hotels or other leisure facilities.
There are obvious benefits to both governments and private institutions shedding office space. Where relevant, rents no longer have to be paid and other operating costs – utilities, cleaning , etc. – will become redundant, saving massively in expenditure. Many staffing positions will also be culled, simply because functions will be melded and refined in the new business plan.
What effect all this will have on staff morale and mental health, however, is a complete unknown. The camaraderie of team working, not to mention the sparking off of ideas and problem-solving will undoubtedly suffer since such creativity is an incalculable, ephemeral thing which won’t necessarily thrive via video-calls and e-communications. And long periods of isolation come with their own health warnings – people need people, it’s the human condition. As for home conditions, they vary massively from comfortable detached properties with large gardens to share accommodation in a block of high-rise flats which will also clearly affect the work atmosphere and accompanying mens sana or otherwise.
Meanwhile, outside those deserted office buildings, ancillary businesses will also fall by the wayside. With no workforce to service, coffee shops, bistros and restaurants will have no clientele, newspaper sellers, stall owners and other grey functions will also be starved of custom, taxi operators will find themselves twiddling their thumbs and so on. All these enterprises have suffered greatly during lockdown, losing income and relying on government handouts. Many went under and those that managed to cling on will probably now see the writing on the walls, if there are any walls left, to write on, that is!
Poet Richard Lovelace in his seventeenth century poem ‘To Althea: From Prison’ wrote
‘Stone walls do not a prison make
Nor iron bars a cage’.
It all depends on whether that prison or cage was, as formerly viewed, the confines of the office and the 9-5 grind or the newer, much smaller confined and uncomfortable cell that can be the home work space.