Cast your mind back to March 2020 and many will remember the uncertain stowing of hardware and awkward farewells with colleagues. The frantic pivot from on-site meetings and water cooler conversations to an exclusively online workforce, and with the challenging remote tech to match.
We knew the world was facing great danger but many of us underestimated quite how long the lockdown(s) would last. Had we known in those early days and weeks quite how upended our lives would remain more than 12 months later, we’d have had an existential crisis right beside the photocopier. It would’ve been inconceivable, impossible.
Fortunately, human beings are a durable, adaptable lot and the country is slowly but surely reopening with a robust vaccination commitment: 85 per cent of Ireland’s population will choose to have the coronavirus vaccine, according to last month’s Ipsos MRBI survey, in a bid to reach some semblance of normality. This is reassuring news for the economy and our livelihoods, but also asks fundamental questions about what happens next: after more than a year of remote working, what have we learned? What do we need? What can we do better?
At the beginning of the first lockdown, working from home was a novelty. The daily commute from bedroom to home office, ie the kitchen table in many cases, allowed extra time in bed, for parenting, or to kick-start a fitness regime that there was never enough hours for before. (The lack of travel expenses was also welcome).
But as the months rolled by, familiarity bred contempt and we realised it wasn’t necessarily working from home that was the ideal, but having a hybrid model: a happy medium of individual-focused tasks administered remotely and collaborative work onsite. A recent survey by Ireland’s largest lobby and business representative group ,Ibec, revealed that nearly 80 per cent of companies expect to be returning to the workplace by September, in line with current government guidelines, while one in five expect to be fully back in the workplace within the next three months due to the robust vaccine take up.
“This provides the evidence that to reignite collaboration, culture and confidence in their workforce business requires clarity,” said Ibec’s CEO Danny McCoy. “The Government’s roadmap must be aligned with an ongoing review of reopening timelines that reflects the risk reduction that the vaccine programme is delivering. This means a potential earlier gradual return to workplaces than the previously flagged expected return time of September.”
Flexible workspaces, by design, provide a solution. Not only do business owners not have to worry about limiting expensive long-term office overheads – instead choosing flexible, low-commitment membership plans – employees and sole traders are granted more agency over how, when and where they conduct their day-to-day responsibilities; making their working week fit around their life than their life around their working week. In the same study, companies predict that around 20 per cent of their employees will work a three-day week onsite and 13 per cent a two-day week onsite.
Mental Health is Wealth
Human beings are social animals and even introverts have found themselves missing the office banter over the past year. It took a global health crisis to understand that there’s no such thing as small talk; it’s all part of the team-bonding experience that in turn incubates creativity and productivity.
In a ‘Working from Home’ study by Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) in April and May 2020 – mere months after the first lockdown – a third of respondents said they felt isolated working at home, while 40 per cent admitted to experiencing poor wellbeing. “The survey results prove what many commentators have speculated; we are facing into a significant increase in mental health and wellbeing problems as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said MHFA Ireland manager Donal Scanlan, encouraging businesses to help “create a workplace culture where mental health can be spoken about openly and with confidence; a workplace community willing and able to respond to the mental health needs of their colleagues.”
It’s safe to assume employees are feeling more cut-off than ever, after 18 months of working apart. To help boost morale during the crisis, many companies have implemented virtual coffee breaks, often pairing colleagues at random, which is certainly commendable. But in the longer-term, workers as well as bosses are eager for face-to-face contact. Meanwhile, so many new recruits have been hired remotely without ever once shaking the hand of their manager or coworkers, which can be an alienating entry into any company or team. The respectful – and socially distanced – hustle and bustle of a co-working or flexible workspace is a happy medium for those in need of a stimulating environment, networking opportunities and those all-important water cooler moments.
The very presence of other people in a safe, working environment after so long of solitary work will be a tonic for most. Face-to-face meetings and brainstorms will never go out of fashion, and businesses will always need office space. It’s how, why and when they’re used, that will be the million dollar questions over the coming months, and as the Ibec survey illustrates, the consensus is that the pandemic has merely accelerated our need for flexibility. No one expects the first post-pandemic experiments of blended working to be right first time. But the flexible memberships of a coworking and serviced office space – not retro-fitted, but purpose built – present an ideal, low-risk opportunity for companies to dip a toe into the hybrid formula that could prove transformative in the long-term.
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