The challenge of minimising waste affects all businesses, but in light of the current global food crisis, waste in the food and drink industry is seen as a particular priority right now.
Office working provided familiarity, comfort – and while complaining of the long hours sacrificed between impersonal glass walls, many would admit that the routine of leaving home to work gave their day structure.
The traditional ‘office’ was pioneered in 1729 by the East India Company, who built their headquarters in Leadenhall Street, London, to process vast quantities of trading documents and correspondence.
British-essayist Charles Lamb worked there for a spell, and accurately captures the pros and cons of the office environment, talking fondly of friendships formed with colleagues while complaining of having to sign in and out.
As the Covid-19 pandemic swarmed across the globe, however, employers were quickly forced to adapt to flexible working practices.
Covid-19 and the risk of contagion
According to consulting firm McKinsey & Company, even the most extreme business-continuity plans hadn’t envisioned such a dramatic upheaval to the usual way of working.
In the USA, 62% of employees worked at home at the beginning of 2020 compared with around 25% a few years prior. In the UK, the percentage of people doing some work from home rose to 37% - significantly lower than in the US, but still ten percent higher than the previous year.
Big tech companies were amongst the first to embrace the idea of a virtual working environment: Twitter, based in San Francisco, told employees in May 2020 that they could work from home indefinitely.
According to McKinsey research, 80% of those questioned reported that they enjoy working from home: many found more productive ways to spend time previously spent commuting and enjoyed greater flexibility in balancing their personal and professional lives.
Benefits of home working
Several workers also report better concentration in their home environment. This may be because having the freedom to self-manage reduces stress and helps staff to disconnect when they’re not working: such are the thoughts of ‘Chargebee’ CEO Krish Subramanian.
From an employers’ perspective, the removal of locational constraints meant access to new pools of talent and significantly reduced real-estate costs. Remote working also absolves businesses of responsibility for enforcing mask mandates and social distancing, which may be unpopular or even impracticable.
Teamworking is often cited as the biggest challenge when working remotely; research from McKinsey suggests the only reason employees were able to collaborate remotely was on account of the groundwork laid pre-Covid.
Drawbacks of home working
Home working can also lead to work intensification, social and professional isolation and threats to professional advancement, according to research by the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.
Furthermore, the office has an important role in providing learning opportunities for younger employees. Jim Coleman, head of economics at WSP London, observes: ‘A lot of developing people is not formal training, it’s all the other interactions.
For people at the start of their careers, there’s probably more desire to be with other people because you’re still learning and you want the experience and the social life that goes with it.’
Now that Covid is largely under control and the need for isolation has passed, many are asking what will become of the traditional workspace. There is no straightforward answer: the truth is, it will vary from business to business.
The future of traditional workspaces
Many employers have been impressed with how much can be accomplished by staff working remotely: data from the Business Insights and Conditions Survey (BICS) showed that of businesses that had not permanently stopped trading, 24% intend to use increased homeworking as a permanent business model going forward.
On the other hand, many hold the belief that there is still value in a literal office environment. In finance, for example, executives have been keen to bring people back to the office due to a highly ‘in-person’ work culture and ‘aspects of financial services which aren’t as easy to do remotely’.
What employers – and employees – seemingly want is a compromise, in which some work is carried out at home, but office space exists to provide a base for collaborative tasks.
In terms of office space itself, Paul Stapley of WSP Canada suggests: ‘Companies could see this as an opportunity to downsize, to reduce operating costs and invest more in technology.’
This approach may be particularly favourable to businesses whose profits are likely to be hit by a recession. The International Monetary Fund has described the ‘Great Lockdown’ as the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, indicating that firms will be looking to save money where they can.
On the other hand, businesses that’ve managed to thrive throughout the pandemic – notably those in the technology and e-commerce sectors – may take another approach. With funds to spare, such companies could create workspaces specifically designed to support the kinds of activities that cannot happen remotely.
WSP envisions ‘modern, flexible office spaces with lots of services’, while other companies are already adapting by paying for employees to access coworking spaces located in major cities around the world.
Ultimately, it may be down to the employees as much as employers to decide what happens next. With a tight UK labour market, the UK workforce is in a better position than ever to negotiate working conditions, as businesses risk losing their top talent if they fail to heed employees’ requests.
Only one thing is certain: things are unlikely to return to how they were before. As the BBC has it, the sought-after return to the office is a myth and flexible working patterns have become entrenched. The news agency bids employers beware – ‘the return-to-office date has died.’
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