Flexible working arrangements, and in particular some at home working has always been near the top of our candidate wish list when it comes to seeking a new employer. Once considered a benefit, this arrangement has now become the norm. The Coronavirus pandemic has flipped business attitudes toward office vs. remote working. It has also caused them to think about what they need from bricks and mortar premises.
The move toward at home working.
In terms of this journey here in the UK, the path is winding, but goes something like this!
In March, the UK government asked us all to work from home where we could. According to the Office for National Statistics, by the middle of April, almost half of all people in employment had made this change. By comparison, pre-pandemic, just 5% of the UK workforce reported working mainly from home.
Then over the summer, the government changed its position and urged us all to head back to our offices. The virus looked to be under control and inner city businesses needed our custom. This was to be short lived, however. In September the government began to retreat back to its earlier stance. As we publish this, cases have risen again. In England, we are staring down the barrel of another 4 week lockdown. Once again, at home working is all but mandatory.
Is at home working the future?
It is becoming more and more evident that social distancing guidelines will be in force – in some capacity – well into 2021. The past six months have been financially challenging for pretty much all sectors, but have taught businesses a lot about what they need from their workspace. Many have learned that their organisation can operate effectively without the heavy overheads a large office space commands.
It is true that with effective scalable digital solutions in place, tech businesses and their employees can operate effectively from home. However, tech companies do require some element of communal working. Tech companies rely on innovation and need access to specialist infrastructure. They need to develop an organisational culture and foster an environment of support and collaboration. With this in mind, exclusive at home working does not provide a solution for long term growth.
So, can you balance employee wants and their health and safety with the fundamentals of business best practice and the need to have a physical workspace which meets critical business functions?
Many employees place high value upon the flexibility and autonomy that comes with working from home (WFH).
Back in the summer, Ipsos MORI conducted a poll among nearly 400 UK adults who had been working at home full time since March. The survey found that 34% felt that WFH had improved their mental wellbeing, while 37% reported their job satisfaction was higher. 54% stated that their work/life balance was better. More plus points followed. 38% reported doing more exercise, 41% had a better diet and 57% said, that without the daily commute, they had more time to spend with their families.
These results are not something that tech businesses can disregard. Indeed, a separate survey of 1000 UK workers carried out in October found that a third would rather leave a position than forfeit the option to work from home on a permanent basis. It is clear that to retain current employees, recruit new ones and meet demands for flexible working arrangements, tech businesses must move carefully when considering a transition back toward office working.
The pitfalls of remote working.
At home working does of course have its downfalls, and for some it has not been a wholly positive experience. Data from the same Ipsos MORI study showed that 40% of respondents found working from home challenging. 38% stated they did not have a suitable workspace in their home, while 36% missed interacting with colleagues.
There has also been an issue within the sector of infrastructure availability. For example, the study highlighted that 28% of homeworkers have been hindered by poor internet connections, while 27% lack the technology they need to do their jobs when not in the office. Additionally, just over a quarter (27%) found it harder to collaborate with team members.
Remote working is likely to remain in place for the vast majority of us, at least on a part time basis for some time yet. Many of the candidates we have placed have been told that they will remain remote until the spring, or even the summer in some cases.
The anonymous professional network, Blind, recently surveyed 3,200 people from tech companies. 80% believe that the future of work will be a hybrid of remote and connected working. As a consequence, it is inevitable that significant investments will need to be made into home workstations.
Tech businesses require specialist infrastructure.
When the pandemic took hold, many businesses and individuals alike were caught off guard. The transition was swift, and many were ill prepared. Teams simply weren’t equipped with sufficient equipment. They couldn’t do their jobs as efficiently as before.
Primarily this is due to the specific and specialist infrastructure these firms require. The need for super-fast broadband is critical for most tech businesses; employees deployed at home rarely have access to such high levels of connectivity.
We recently blogged about the emerging tech trends of 2021. 5G was on that list and here too it is key. Even in the midst of a pandemic, there is significant demand for 5G enabled workspaces. These act as a reliable 5G testbed for businesses that are developing new tech and apps based upon this dawn of next gen mobile connectivity.
Robust digital infrastructure and the supporting networks underpin the argument that a return to office workspaces is crucial for the majority of technology companies. Indeed, many organisations rely on services above and beyond 5G. Many require labs, 3D printers, maker spaces and so on. For much of the tech and science sector, these specialist spaces are only available in a dedicated workspace.
Tech businesses require collaboration.
Furthermore, the evolution of a tech business is dependent upon innovation. Tech firms are fuelled by it. The generation of new ideas, building upon established ones, problem solving, and more efficient ways of working are at the heart of such organisations. Innovation cannot be done in a silo. It requires collaboration, idea sharing, experimentation and learning. It could be argued that a workforce deployed at home is not conducive to building a culture and a team who are in tune with each other. Team members have reported that often it is the “micro-interactions” – short, unplanned conversations – which lead to new creations and ideas.
A study conducted by MIT found that innovations are interwoven with the micro interactions that occur day to day in the workplace. Respondents suggested that these interactions are required to build trust and rapport. They are essential to the collaborative process.
This issue is particularly relevant when young or inexperienced members of staff are concerned. Interaction with colleagues and management are essential to professional development. Juniors are taught new skills and are better able to understand their own role. Online and digital solutions can bridge this gap to some extent, but they cannot replace the lunchtime chat and the less formal face to face discussion process.
Tech businesses require a culture.
Many candidates and companies place a huge weight upon company culture. Fostering a team spirit and forming a company identity is another significant challenge when teams are not together in one place. The workplace is the space where a culture is formed and absorbed by employees. In short, it is where you shape your people and align your vision.
Values, ethics and integrity are set in a workspace. Management styles are learned, and team conduct expectations are laid down. Everything from the furniture, the décor and the social spaces educate and inform how colleagues feel. Without these anchors, many employees can feel ‘at sea’. Their motivation and enthusiasm for the work drops along with their productivity and general work rate.
A return to the office. What will technology companies require?
Flexibility & affordability.
The data from the aforementioned studies suggest that a return to the workspace seems to be a certainty for the majority of tech companies. So, what will they require when we finally get there? We have no way of anticipating what the future holds at present, such is the roulette wheel that is the coronavirus pandemic. This uncertainty means that flexibility is essential. Organisations must have spaces that can scale up and down in line with business activity and need. It is worth mentioning that as a response to the COVID pandemic, many tech businesses have experienced a surge in demand. The world has seen, and required a digital boom; one which has given way to a host of digital solutions, products and experiences.
Bruntwood SciTech recently conducted a study among 300 science and tech businesses across the UK. The results demonstrated that 87% of those asked were either confident or very confident about the future of their businesses. Despite the expected increase in rates of long term home working, 47% thought they would need larger premises when they next renew a lease – not least so that we can ensure social distancing in such an enclosed space.
Health & Safety Assessments.
As staff return to their desks, all workspaces will need to be health and safety aware. In September, some of us ventured back to work. At the same time, the CIPD conducted a small scale study of just over 1000 employees. The results found that the vast majority were satisfied with the health and safety measures in place. However, 21% were not. Businesses will be working hard to ensure that is a zero figure.
Back to Work.
It seems clear that for the majority of tech businesses a move back to a physical workspace is high on the agenda once it is safe to do so. This pandemic has altered so much, but it has not eradicated the needs of tech firms. In a post COVID world, these firms will still require specialist infrastructure. They will still require a collaborative space conducive with innovation. They will still need to nurture a company culture. Whether we are in an office, or at home, working will undeniably be different for many months to come. Peering out from behind the face covering though, it is clear that for many tech organisations, a physical workspace will very much be front and centre.