As 2020 comes to a close, we look back at how the year changed our world of work and we look ahead to what it might mean for the future of work and working from home.
Before Covid-19 and the virus-induced lockdown, working from home was seen as a perk, a desirable benefit. According to this report by the World Economic Forum, it was also the preserve of the highest paid. Generally, those in managerial, professional, administrative, and technical roles are able to work from home but there were still people for whom flexible working, and the chance to work remotely, seemed well out of reach.
When Coronavirus hit, the number of homeworkers shot up almost overnight. According to the Office for National Statistics, 86% of those working from home were doing so because of Covid-19.
During lockdown, research found 60% of UK employees were working remotely. The number of people actually working from home would have been much higher due to the number of freelancers and self-employed who are always home-based.
One country we all looked to was China where the virus originated. Factories had shut, everyone was home. They were living the lockdown experience of homeschooling, zoom meetings, and working from home in a newly virtual-only world.
The Homeworker interviewed Rajesh Kripalani, a teacher based in China, to find out about their experience of remote working during a lockdown.
It was then, back in March, when I first heard reference to zoom fatigue. Kripalani talked of the exhaustion after hours of video calls and remote learning and warned of the importance of getting outside for screen breaks and coming up with a schedule to work around.
Adapting to the new normal
As the virus spread, it was like a Mexican wave of countries falling into lockdown. We all had to start adapting to a new way of working and living.
There was a rush to find quick tips for working from home.
For those new to the situation, how and where to get the work done was the first concern, but there were new emotions and anxieties to get used to as James Edmondson described in his personal account.
For working parents, incorporating homeschooling into the daily schedule added another layer of difficulty and stress. Working from home with children meant we were struggling to keep on top of lessons and meetings on zoom – and of course, the constant demand for snacks.
While employees were suddenly forced into turning kitchen tables into makeshift offices, Cate Archer Underwood wrote in issue 8 of The Homeworker, of how those used to working from home had to adapt to the “corporate gatecrashers” as we all tried to navigate working together, sharing space, and bandwidth.
Same storm, different boats
The first weeks of working from home highlighted how we were all experiencing this very differently. While homeworking is often seen as a great leveller, when it is no longer a choice, the disparities become much more obvious.
The people struggling tended to be younger graduates and those living in smaller spaces. Working from home in a flat-share with little provision for remote working, or a cramped apartment with no outside space is very different from setting up in a large home with a separate office and big garden.
The gender divide also came to light with stats showing how women were taking on more of the housework, homeschooling, and childcare.
While some were desperate to return to the office, others loved the new set up and lockdown was proving that remote working was possible on a much larger scale.
As Anna Whitehouse (Mother Pukka) said in our interview: “It’s proved that the technology is there to facilitate it… Globally we’re now working in a more flexible way – overnight we have seen how quickly the tech can be put into place, how quickly teams can work remotely.”
No more offices?
Several organisations came out declaring that they would be allowing their staff to work from home forever. Barclays boss, Jes Stanley announced that he thought large offices filled with hundreds of workers would be a thing of the past.
He later went back on this as pressure mounted to get people ‘back to work’. There were concerns over the inner city economies and mental health.
The ups and downs and repercussions of remote working reach far beyond the four walls of our home. There is a real economic impact – both good and bad – depending on where you live and the sector you’re in.
While some inner city retailers suffered from reduced footfall, there seemed to be a shift to supporting local communities and smaller businesses.
Working from home in the spotlight
With working from home very much in the spotlight, I found myself delivering the opening keynote speech at the virtual Work From Home Show detailing my five pillars for work from home success.
Soon after, I was interviewed by China Global TV on the day we moved house (which prompted an article on how to work from home when moving home).
It was followed by participating in a live panel discussion on Radio 4’s Money Box Live. As we saw remote working become a longer-term reality, I shared some top productivity tips on Radio 5 Live.
How do we maximise productivity while working from home? 🏠— BBC Radio 5 Live (@bbc5live) September 22, 2020
It seems working from home (WFH), may still be on the cards for many people over the next six months.
Louise Goss, editor of @Homeworkermag, explains how to make the best of it.
Listen Live 📲 https://t.co/fDGQfzgkom pic.twitter.com/7mZQmfdGFz
In November, as colder weather set in, Jeremy Vine interviewed me on BBC Radio 2 about how to keep warm when working from home. His parting comment about The Homeworker: “One of the most timely moments in publishing ever.”
Staying healthy when homeworking
As we began to settle into our new roles and work patterns, talk began to shift from the immediate concern over productivity, tech, and comms, to our mental health and a new phrase: Work from home burnout.
We share tips on dealing with wfh burnout here.
Environmental issues and the longer-term effects of remote working came on to the agenda. Collaboration, career progression, and what of all the office space?
There was concern of another health pandemic – that of our mental wellbeing. We looked at ways to connect meaningfully with others in issue 6 of The Homeworker and wellbeing became the focus of issue 7. In it, we shared how to spot signs of poor mental health and struggles from behind a screen.
The environmental impact also became a talking point. As our heating bills soared and we were having to foot more of our own bills, we started looking at how to reduce our costs and our environmental footprint at the same time.
Coronavirus seemed to waken us up to how we treat the world and how to be more sustainable when when working from home became one of our most popular articles.
The future of work and WFH
So is working from home here to stay? And if so, how widespread and how frequently?
A number of studies all point to the fact that people would like it to continue but only for a couple of days a week. This paper reveals it is likely to stick after the pandemic and a big part of that being due to the “diminished stigma” of working from home. The hybrid solution seems to be the most popular option. It allows people to enjoy the benefits of both home and office life.
Smaller community hubs and regional office spaces may replace larger headquarters to allow for meetings and training. Co-working spaces may become more popular as freelancers and remote workers look for a change of scene and space to meet up and see other people.
Experts predict that remote work management and coordination will be more important than ever. In issue 6, we addressed how remote working will expose poor leadership and how managers will need to adapt including looking at the trust issue and the importance of effective communication.
One obvious prediction is how we will become more reliant on video conferencing but we will need to make sure it doesn’t become the default. People are tiring of endless Zoom calls and so in issue 7, we looked at the best ways to communicate for true flexible working.
“In 2021, the “new normal” of remote workforces will require businesses to be reminded that technology is their best friend.,” says Moe Vela, remote work expert and Chief Transparency Officer of TransparentBusiness. “Technology has been evolving and preparing for the moment in business history… Remote workforce is here to stay and businesses have all the tools necessary to mitigate any risk, increase productivity, maintain operational efficiencies and remain competitive.”
While employers will likely need to offer a remote work option to attract talent, other benefits packages may become more desirable as the work from home lifestyle becomes standard.
But will it ever become law? Susan Kelly, partner at Winkworth Sherwood thinks this is “unlikely,” especially as there is already a right to request homeworking.
“Apart from anything else, many jobs across the country simply cannot be done from home, so one then encounters the difficulty of defining which jobs attract this right and which do not.”
The future of work in 2021
We can see that 2020 has changed how people view working from home. It is no longer an excuse to take a day off, we know productive work can be done and for the majority of people, they enjoy the balance it gives them.
Until a vaccine is rolled out more widely and workplaces can reopen, we will see millions of us remaining at home and this is going to shift how we use our homes.
A home workspace will become a bigger priority. We have already seen innovative creations come out of lockdown including some of these new desks for homeworkers.
People will look to invest more in their home office equipment and a productive home workspace.
Remote workers may look to their employers to help with more of the costs associated with working from home and I believe there will be more acceptance of the minor interrupions of home life.
The mental health of workers will have to become a big focus to ensure people working in isolation don’t suffer. It is something that many self-employed business owners and freelancers deal with constantly and this article shares some useful reminders of how to protect your mental wellbeing. There will also be the challenge for companies of bringing people back together and reacclimatising to the office and the next new phase of working.
Equally, we will need to look more at how to set good boundaries and prioritise switching off to prevent burnout.
Working from home is here to stay, although perhaps not on quite the scale we have seen in 2020. We know it can work. We know it has huge benefits for family life and balance, and we know it has environmental benefits due to the lack of commuting.
What 2020 has shown us is that we can’t predict what is round the corner and we need to be flexible and adaptable. If nothing else, 2020 has shown us what we are capable of. There will be a huge number of lessons we’ve learned but also, I hope, on reflection, celebration at what we have achieved and overcome personally and professionally.
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