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COVID-19 – Redefining the Workplace

Interserve delivers pioneering service to create value for clients
27 April 2020

COVID-19 – Redefining the Workplace

By Iain Shorthose, Director of Customer & Workplace Experience at Interserve

As the lockdown continues and businesses learn how to grapple with the issues thrown up by COVID-19, there are a whole host of areas – both positive and negative – that will result in long-term changes to the way that we work.

I very much see a dual process at work. On the one hand, the role of frontline members of staff who serve essential organisations including the NHS, BBC or Transport for London has never been more important. The heroes we see day-in, day-out working at our hospitals or health clinics and delivering other key services will continue to play a vital role. But it’s clear that for many of the knowledge workers (those who ‘think’ for a living and are largely office based) professional life may never be the same again.

Many working practices were already evolving, but COVID-19 has dramatically accelerated the pace of change. The widespread adoption of technologies including video conferencing, smartphones and other gadgets that blur the boundaries between our domestic and professional lives has led to an increase in the number of people working from home. Research carried out by Harvard University found that homeworkers’ productivity falls by between 10 per cent to 20 per cent. During the COVID-19 lockdown, that is likely to be further reduced due to a range of factors, including increased levels of stress, providing home-schooling or simply spending time and energy worrying about friends and family.

But when this national emergency finally ends and we begin to return to the workplace, I believe some of the temporary habits formed during the lockdown will become permanent – and that has profound implications for all of us.

An evidence-based approach

We know from the findings of our Workplace Effectiveness report, published in January, that physical and sensory aspects of the workplace have a significant impact on employees’ emotional and physical wellbeing - as well as our productivity. So it is important that employers get this right.

According to the report, the activities which have the greatest impact on productivity and wellbeing are: meetings, informal social interaction, individual desk-based work and collaborative working. But as home-working becomes more prevalent, what will those activities look like, how will they change and what does that mean for the productivity and wellbeing of our colleagues?

Emotions matter

We need to acknowledge that sudden changes can have a dramatic emotional effect. Many of us will be dealing with new feelings a result of our changed environments. It’s vital that we understand them, because emotions drive thinking, attitudes, behaviour and actions. Optimising a workforce’s wellbeing and productivity depends on those feelings being positive. So we should ask what we as managers can do to minimise any negative feelings.

Home working can be challenging

Most homes are not designed for work. Many of us struggle to find the right place or enough space to do our jobs when we aren’t in the office. The fact that we can only leave the house once a day, at the most, to buy food or medicine or to exercise, means we are spending far longer in a challenging environment. This will undoubtedly affect how we feel, impact our wellbeing and effect our productivity.

If people feel they don’t have the tools they need to work effectively at home, that add to their stress and anxiety levels. They may blame their employers and start to feel abandoned, disengaged or resentful.

Our research shows noise is one of the key sensory aspects that impacts on wellbeing and productivity. Dealing with the noise made by children, pets or next door neighbours will make this more of a challenge, particularly in a home environment when other distractions – such as poor lighting or knocks at the front door - are to the fore.

Easy steps to take

What changes can we can make to our home that might make it feel like a better environment to work in? There are some simple steps to follow.

Even buying a plant or changing the direction of your desk so that you benefit from natural light could make a huge difference.

And it’s useful to remember that there are some things we can control at home that might make us all more productive. We have control over the heating levels. We can open a window when we feel like it. Those of us who are asked to follow clear desk policies at work, might find we are now free of that obligation. We can even take our pets to work with us.

Ask yourself what made your office environment work for you and try to replicate at home. More importantly, ask yourself how can you support your teams to do the same?

Ask them to take all these physical, sensory and emotional factors into account when as they take steps to create a comfortable new workspace. It will benefit you, your team and your organisation in the long run.

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