Current headlines on returning to the office paint a picture of what future ways of working might look like. Siemens wants to enable 140,000 employees to practice mobile working two to three days a week even after the Coronavirus crisis is over. Google also recently announced that 200,000 employees will initially work from their home office until July 2021.
Companies are beginning to remodel their office space. Lower occupancy is used to create the necessary spatial distance. This is usually achieved by working in shifts, outsourcing teams to additionally rented rooms or using coworking centers. Numerous surveys show that employees are looking forward to social contact, i.e. to seeing their colleagues again, but also want to continue working from their home office a few days a week.
So it is not the office that is being abolished, but the question of whether large office buildings will be needed in the future. Will working remotely become the new standard? The French car manufacturer PSA and the US services Twitter and Facebook have all talked about a future where many of their employees will work remotely on a permanent basis. Jes Staley, head of the British bank Barclays, goes a step further and says that cramming 7,000 people into a building could be a “thing of the past”. “We will find ways to work at a much greater distance for a much longer time”.
Covid-19 accelerates digitization
Prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were often reservations about allowing office workers to work from home. Many supervisors were rather critical of the home office or refused to allow employees to work outside their own offices. They were of the opinion that employees who couldn’t be controlled properly could not be profitable either. Now that a few months have passed where their employees have successfully worked from home, they have a different view of the situation and see more opportunities for mobile working, at least temporarily.
Covid-19 has accelerated digital communication and thus the implementation of appropriate strategies, according to a study of the cloud communication platform Twilio in San Francisco. Plans for digital transformation, which were originally designed to span several years, had to be implemented in the shortest possible time after the outbreak of the crisis. It might not have always been to the same level of detail as originally planned, but at least to the extent that the employees were enabled to work mobile.
The internal IT must be adapted or expanded.
IT security is particularly important for companies working remotely, as the recent attack on the manufacturer Garmin shows. The aim of this attack was most likely not to steal data, but to prevent its use by encrypting it and demanding a ransom for its release. Until now, companies have mostly concentrated on fending off direct attacks on their central IT system. However, the more data is accessed externally (from the home office or other 3rd parties), the points of attack shift away from the central office. It is often easier for criminals to gain access to data via external computers because the necessary security standard is not available everywhere in the home office. This is a particularly important issue for employees who need to access sensitive data from home.
In addition to VPN access, there are special solutions such as ESET Secure Authentication (ESA) for securing the home office, which can also be integrated into existing hardware such as smartphones. Cloudflare in the so-called enterprise class could also be interesting as a complete solution for smaller companies.
In addition to IT security, its new organization and equipment has become necessary due to the new way of working. In recent months, many people have had their first experience with virtual meetings. In companies that have a digital affinity anyway, such as banks, insurance companies or IT firms, this has generally been quick and without major problems. In other companies, however, it quickly became clear that appropriate training was needed and that pure “video conferencing tools” quickly reached their limits.
Tools for mobile working and home office are needed:
(Examples without any evaluation and without claim to completeness)
- Virtual meetings can be held with tools such as GoToMeeting, Skype, Webex, MS-Teams, Zoom and more.
- Depending on the work task, collaboration tools, i.e. special software for joint virtual teamwork, are also required. Examples are Nexario, MS-Teams/Cloud, Box, Zoho Remotely, Britix24 etc.
- It is advisable to define a standard and train the employees accordingly and to reduce any resistance that may exist.
The human anatomy does not change in the home office
If the home office workstation is established as the standard, e.g. twice a week, the employer is also responsible for ensuring that the workstation meets the applicable requirements. In addition to the legal requirements, one should be aware that downtime is caused by insufficient ergonomic quality of office equipment, regardless of where the workplace is located.
Pictures in the social media often show devastating working conditions such as ironing boards with notebooks, small niches without space for legs etc. These examples prove that for some employees the spatial situation at home is not suitable for an office workstation.
The productivity in the home office is high, but:
- Often there is no enclosed space for the necessary concentration
- The organisation of work is difficult for many
- Family is present etc.
- Prolonged work at the screen causes long-term illnesses
- The use of notebooks and tablets leads to incorrect posture
Basically, there are no other requirements for the computer workstation in the home office than in the office!
Therefore, a work surface (at least 80×120) with sufficient leg room is required. This means that there should be nothing under the table that restricts the movement of the legs. In addition, an office swivel chair should be available, which allows longer sitting without fatigue.
What I see very often is the home office workplace with a direct view to the window. But that is extremely strenuous for the eyes. Therefore, the line of sight should be transverse to the window. Then you can look outside to the side more often and thus move the neck and shoulder muscles a little more.
For equipment it is recommended to use a large screen, an external keyboard and a mouse. This can also be used in addition to a notebook or tablet to further increase productivity, with corresponding content to be displayed simultaneously.
Attention Burnout Danger
According to a worldwide survey of 700,000 workers conducted by LinkedIn subsidiary Glint in early May 2020, it was found that the risk of burnout in the home office had increased significantly. “We see that comments in employee surveys on burnout doubled from 2.7 to 5.4 percent between March and April,” Glint reported.
Due to the home office being such a topical issue, there are already numerous surveys and studies on the attitude of employers and employees on this new form of work. In general, job satisfaction is increasing, and the work-life balance is perceived as improved. Above all, the time saved by the elimination of commuting times to the office is mentioned. On the other hand, the line between work and private life in the home office is becoming blurred for many. According to a survey conducted by the DAK (health insurance company) at the beginning of July, among 2,586 people with a regular home office, almost one in two missed a clear separation between work and private life.
As it is not yet clear when a vaccine will be available or if it might not be possible to develop either a vaccine or effective drugs, we should be prepared for the new way of working.
I think in the long run there will be a mix of office presence, which will look different than today, and a share of home office or 3rd places.
Jörg Bakschas is an independent workspace specialist, change coach and design thinker. He is a member of several European committees working on standards for the office.
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