Covid-19 Killed the Office

Matthew Oulton explores how Covid-19 has dramatically transformed the way we work. He discusses how we must reconstruct societal norms to make the workplace more inclusive and more productive.

In the same way as many digital watches display fake hands to show an analogue face, and I sign every email with my name despite it being clear without, the way we work is shaped intimately by ‘the way things have always been’. In normal times, many of us go into the same office at the same time each day, mostly to our assigned seat with others from our team. Today’s office, like the digital watch with an analogue face, mimics the office that was unavoidable in the 1970s.

Those who aren’t furloughed or unemployed at the moment, however, are mostly working from home. Millions of people across the country are experiencing, for the first time, what it would be like if we didn’t have to journey into work every day. For many, it’s a distinctly negative experience: a lack of human contact can be draining, especially when we can’t go outside. For many of us, we’re realising that the world doesn’t have to go back to the way it used to be.

Firstly, there’s the commute. Travelling to work every day by train, bus, or car is expensive (either in tickets or petrol), environmentally unfriendly, unpleasant, and time-consuming. The TUC reports that the average commute in the UK is nearly an hour, with the commute for workers in large cities being particularly long. Since workers aren’t paid for that hour, cutting it out represents an effective hourly wage increase of over 10%. If employers want to capture the best employees without increasing their wages, this is an easy and inexpensive way to do it. Of course, logistical problems arise from having workers spread out geographically, but many firms are rapidly overcoming these anyway. Many workers, having demonstrated they can work from home five days a week, will now insist on working from home three or four days. Employers should allow for this and embrace it as a way to attract top talent.

These changes don’t come without cost – human contact is important, and managers will have to adapt the way they work in order to accommodate these working styles. Up until now being in the office everyday has been a clear visual signal to a manager that you’re working. This crisis has forced us to abandon that heuristic, so now is the time to change the way our society works.

Then, there’s the added flexibility in the workplace. Whilst the ability to go from taking a call for an hour to feeding your children for half an hour might be a manager’s nightmare, the ability to switch quickly between work and home commitments makes full-time work eminently more manageable for those with caring commitments. With Britain’s ailing productivity, we can’t afford to lose as many highly skilled educated women as we do just because they need more flexibility than our work system is designed for. There’s no sense in enforcing a rigidity to working that’s now clearly not necessary.

To prevent contagion on public transport, businesses should be encouraged to stagger working hours as employees return to work. By having commuting dispersed more evenly across the day, people will have shorter journeys with less busy public transport. This is a sensible move in response to the virus, but it also makes sense on an ongoing basis. By encouraging more flexible and less typical working hours, commutes can be reduced permanently. This will support those who are less able to work a typical 9-5 and will also make longer distance commutes more viable.

This virus has disrupted every norm in the world of work. We have an unrivalled opportunity now to reconstruct these norms to make the workplace more inclusive and more productive. Now is the time to shift to a 21st Century way of working.

Matthew Oulton is an Economics student at the University of Warwick. A keen writer on Economics, Matthew also works part-time at a Sales Consultancy and sings in the Choir of Coventry Cathedral.

Follow him on twitter @matthewoulton


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