When John Lewis Partnership chairman Sharon White wrote in a recent letter to partners that “difficult decisions taken now will hopefully set the course for those next generations” she was referring to the rebalancing of the business’s operations from store-based to digital channels.
White, however, could just as easily have been describing the generational shift in working patterns that is about to take place following the pandemic: specifically the move to more flexible, remote working.
For those employed in white-collar roles, this will inevitably mean more days spent working at home and fewer trips to the office in future.
The discovery that remote working can be just as effective and productive as office-based work has come as a revelation to many of us who grew up in an analogue age. Business leaders who previously may have resisted change now understand the benefits that can derive from having less capital tied up in office freeholds and rents. Money saved can be reinvested in other areas such as marketing, supply chains or even the digital technology that is making remote work so easy and accessible.
There are good reasons to frame the shift to remote working as entirely positive: for a start there’s the money and timed saved on the commute as well as the opportunity to spend more time with loved ones and, for some couples, to share parental responsibilities more equally.
But there’s a flip side to the coin that has been less thoroughly explored. For many people whose employers are embracing flexible working and are downsizing their office capacity accordingly, the expectation that they should work more regularly from home will come as a disappointment.
Senior executives have been telling me how the importance of impromptu ‘water cooler’ conversations that are such a feature of office life cannot be underplayed. The best ideas are often exchanged not in the meeting room, where formality can sometimes stifle free expression, but on the walk back to your desk or while making a hot drink at the tea station. The natural way that we express ourselves during informal, in-person conversations is hard to replicate in the contrived environment of a Teams or Zoom meeting.
Bosses have also found it difficult to assess the health and wellbeing of their team members in the absence of physical proximity. The best managers can pick up on non-verbal cues that point to how someone is feeling about their work of personal life. When people are gathered together in an office, it is possible to observe colleagues and, sensitively, check in with them to make sure everything is ok in a way that remote working simply does not allow.
My thoughts also turn to younger people whose progression up the career ladder risks being stifled by home working. Having spent much of the past year shut away in flats or family homes, many young people will be craving social contact. The routine of office work presents everyday opportunities for socialising and networking. Friendships are developed that last a lifetime and relationships built with more senior colleagues that can open doors to new professional opportunities.
Those people that are relishing the future prospect of spending half of their working lives at home need to recognise that, for some people, their preferred balance will tilt firmly towards being in the office.
Moving forward, it will be the job of managers and business leaders to ensure these people remain fully engaged and supported and are not denied the personal and professional development opportunities their older, more experienced peers once took for granted.
Of course, we need to continue to work safely, and for most businesses that means a wholesale return to the office is out of the question.
But as we embrace the transition to more flexible working let’s not forget what we once loved and valued so much about office life.