Working in the future

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We’re in a remote working revolution driven by a pandemic. Thank you 2020. But what does the future of working hold for us? Are things getting better or worse?

Office life

Like many I’ve spent years working in offices. The first one was a concrete cube on the Hanger Lane gyratory, a massive roundabout in West London. I learned how to navigate office life there – setting up the software on my work laptop, tentatively answering the phone and identifying who was important/lucky by if they had window desks or a private office. These felt like fundamental steps in my professional education at the time.

The rhythms of office life are the same in most companies. Employees set up daily camp at desks, chat in tea breaks and try to avoid taking responsibility for the printer running out of paper. There is always that one colleague with a raucous laugh or improbably loud sneeze. This is the law.

Times have changed (we went from phone calls to email to Slack messages and we print less stuff) but change was slow. Until recently that is, when major change arrived in a stressed-out panic. Most of us had days, if not merely hours, to prepare for a shift from working in offices to working 100% from home. It takes a moment to process that.

The downsides to offices

I didn’t always feel comfortable working in offices. A lot of effort went into presenting yourself well. Whilst office attire became less formal, it did once consist of trouser suits, smart shoes, dresses and coats. You needed to look professional and groomed, but also be prepared for fluctuating air con temperatures. In big companies you had to say hello to a lot of people every day, tiptoeing the path to and from your desk. For introverts this could be tricky. If you needed to concentrate on a task, you had to find ways to hide in a meeting room or use headphones. With the rise in open-plan space and trends like hot-desking, it sometimes seemed offices were designed to make it difficult to work.

But the big disadvantage to working in an office in London was commuting. The overcrowded got worse year on year. I’d often wonder about the logic of leaving home in freshly washed clothes with my hair brushed, only to squash myself on to a packed train from which I’d emerge sweating and dishevelled. I’d tried all ways to deal with commuting, from moving outside of the city and spending hours / thousands of pounds on trains, to moving back inside London and sacrificing space for time.

I concluded that there isn’t much point having a roomy, spacious home if you spend so much time commuting, you never get time to relax and enjoy it. I had also experienced a rise in stress and anxiety due to commuting, often feeling my heart sink just looking at a crowded platform and knowing it stood between me and my work. So I’d prioritised location over space, choosing my home to facilitate commuting. Yet it still exhausted me!

The benefits of co-location

There were however definite advantages to working in the same space as colleagues. I built friendships and networks in my jobs. In one role the team spirit grew so strong we’d always bring each other drinks and maintain a fully stocked chocolate ‘treats table’. The best thing was you could rely on someone making you laugh several times a day. I would walk out of a difficult meeting and immediately find a space to rant and a shoulder to cry on. The last few months have really highlighted the importance of that to me. Humans are designed to connect with others and offices provide a location for that.

The serendipity of crossing paths with people in offices encourages innovation. Being in the same space can allow for idea sharing, mentoring and training. A lot of this is just because you can see what others are doing and easily ask questions. When starting a new role or as a junior, it’s so important to see what else is happening to understand how you can contribute. It helps you to grow. I loved decorating the office space with work from current projects, always believing this led to greater creativity. Surroundings matter.

The pull of remote working

I started to read about the digital nomad lifestyle. Whilst these people with laptops on beaches aren’t painting a very realistic picture (have you ever actually tried using a laptop in the sun?), it looked intriguing. I loved travel and I loved my job. Could it be possible to combine the two?

Excited by the prospect, I researched Remote Year and wrote a business case for my then employer. I had been lucky to travel as part of my job and these experiences contributed greatly to my growth. But the proposal of keeping my job whilst moving and living in different cities around the world was a bold suggestion, and in the end I didn’t feel the support was there for me to pursue it. Still I was curious, looking at places like Portugal and wondering what kind of life I could have if I could work in the same field without living in London. True remote working enables this shift, where people do not have to struggle with the cost of living in a city in order to be part of the workforce. It could undo some of the economic constraints of our generation.

The need for flexible working

At the same time I was seeing a greater need for flexible working. Chatting to a designer from Denmark at a conference, I heard about the shared parental leave on offer and how that contributed to work life balance. But having children is not the only reason people need flexibility in their working arrangements. Like everyone I’ve experienced times in my life when I needed to look after family members or deal with life events. Being able to work from home sometimes was essential in coping.

Yet oddly most companies stuck to a 9 – 5 office hours culture. Flexibility on the part of the employee meant unpaid overtime. I would often hit my stride on a piece of work in the evening when the office was quiet and it was not uncommon to have my thoughts interrupted by the lights switching off at 7pm. But flexibility on the part of the employer wasn’t guaranteed. I found that granting requests for flexibility was at the discretion of individual managers. If your manager thought it was ok for you to start later, you could. But if they were a stickler for 9am meetings, you could not.

I also came to see the pressure the lack of flexible working by default put on managers. In one meeting we managers debated whether members of the team could start later to work around the school run (ok) or leave early to attend an exercise class (not ok, according to some). It was a mindset shift in process.

How can we make it work?

I now believe flexible working is essential. Watch this excellent TED talk on the subject of the Flex campaign, which uses the comparison to free range chickens to explain the difference flexible working makes to people’s lives. We have to work but do we need to do it from 9-5 in offices wearing suits? Giving people greater control over how and when they work can lead to increased happiness and increased productivity. Many of us working from home in lockdown got a little taster of this as we could fit personal tasks into our work schedules, such as going for a morning walk. I even found I was able to recover from an operation and take minimal time off. So, always offering workers flexibility will be a huge improvement and benefit to companies.

Where remote working is concerned, I think it’s important to explore options beyond working from home. Not all of us have the space, local community or desire to always work where we live. Many companies are set to keep remote working as the default and several offices are likely to close due to cost saving. It’s therefore important to let people work in co-working spaces if they so choose. That could solve for allowing the face-to-face interactions and teamwork that are still important. I’d also like to see more countries encouraging people to work and travel, like Estonia which is offering a nomad visa. Learning a new language and broadening your knowledge of another culture, alongside progressing your career could finally offer hope to younger people who are priced out of the property market. And it gives us a chance to develop economies outside of the richest cities and countries.

Flexible, remote and connected. That could be our working future.

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