A new way of working

With more and more of the country going into Tier 3 lockdown, the freedoms restored to us since the national lockdown was lifted are in danger of being whittled away again. As the government continues to recommend that people work from home to limit the spread of Covid-19, new ways of working – which we may have once thought might be temporary – are becoming more a way of life. This week, Lloyds Banking Group was the latest employer to ask staff working from home as a result of the pandemic to continue doing so at least until next spring. As we reported before, a number of the law firms we deal with have either given up on their offices completely or reduced the offices they occupy, with many not proposing any sort of return until next year at the earliest. One in three people now work from home (compared with one in two when lockdown was at its severest) and many plan on never returning to the office.

Scheduling versus serendipity – a warning While few will mourn the loss of the commute on expensive, over-crowded and unreliable public transport, or being stuck on the motorway, the Working From Home (WFH) revolution may not be as progressive as it first appeared. In a lecture given by Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane earlier this month (available using this Link (https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/speech/2020/andy-haldane-engaging-business-summit-and-autumn-lecture) ), which came to light this week, he said that prolonged remote working could threaten productivity and creativity in the long term. He added that fewer chance conversations, face-to-face meetings and introductions pose risks that may not yet be fully visible.

He concluded, rather cryptically: Home working means serendipity is supplanted by scheduling face-to-face by Zoom-to-Zoom. What creativity is gained in improved tunnelling is lost in the darkness of the tunnel itself. I imagine some people will have used lockdown to write that creative novel they always knew was in them. I doubt many will become modern-day classics.

The loss of working relationships and external stimuli is an issue, and is something difficult to recreate. Even those people who enjoy working from home may find the novelty wears off at some point, as the lack of human contact is more keenly felt. Haldane suggests the solution may be more of a balance in future some days at home for peace and quiet, others in the office for creativity and bouncing ideas off one another. The PLG way Seeing as many people will be working from home for a while at least, we thought it would be interesting to look at how to improve the experience. Some companies are adopting the prolonged Zoom or Microsoft Teams calls approach like Nick Walkley, chief executive of Homes England.

By keeping Zoom open, so that colleagues/employees can pop in as and when they wish to discuss work, or just to say hello, it can be an effective way of keeping connected at a distance. At PLG, we returned to the office, observing all the required social distancing measures, from May. Everyone was given the option to work from home whenever they wanted, whether that was a regular couple of days a week or just the odd day to write a report in peace and quiet. Tellingly, since then not one member of Team PLG has opted to work from home for a single day. When we say our offices are busy, we mean really busy, and the consensus is that everyone enjoys the buzz of busy phones and deals being agreed much more than working from their dining table in a onesie.

That said, we haven’t been immune from Covid-related issues and on several occasions we have had situations where members of the team have had to self-isolate after receiving a ‘Track and Trace’ alert. We have mentioned before that we have always invested heavily in IT and the infrastructure of the business and policy from day one has been that everyone takes their laptop home every day so that if there is an issue overnight, of which there have been several, work continues seamlessly.

Meeting the challenge of local lockdowns has become part and parcel of every day working life for a business that operates nationally. For example, many of the team are regularly on the road, visiting building sites or viewing properties to rent or buy on behalf of our clients. We are working on a site in Wales where there was a rush to get every finite detail measured before they shut it down. We can only try and be as ready as we can. We have dealt with the situation before and have learnt from the experience. We have realised we can work from home, and do so really efficiently if we have to.

For now at least, we choose not to. What next?

Nobody has a crystal ball but at least we now have experience to draw on. That said, the spring/summer lockdown experience of BBQs and long walks will be somewhat different to the likely experience of a cold winter with long dark nights and the uncertainty of which relatives you are going to be sharing Christmas with. One of the few positives to come out of 2020 is that the importance of mental health is no longer a taboo subject and much higher on the agenda than it has ever been. Furthermore, we are all aware of its importance to ourselves as well as our family and friends. The working environment, whether in the office or at home, will play a huge part in everyone’s wellbeing. Contingency planning, with the benefit of reviewing the good/bad ideas of the first lockdown, should at the very least form a major part of any business plans for the next six months. Beyond that, and our strategic planning is for a long haul rather than a short one, we think that the picture will be clearer in the spring once we have all got the experience of four seasons dealing with the issue and can make experienced-based plans for the future.

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