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Office exodus: Will coronavirus change the East Anglian workplace forever?

PUBLISHED: 10:47 18 March 2020 | UPDATED: 10:47 18 March 2020

Thousands of people across Suffolk and Norfolk are now working from home due to coronavirus. Will the office ever be the same again?

Thousands of people across Suffolk and Norfolk are now working from home due to coronavirus. Will the office ever be the same again?

PA Wire/PA Images

Offices have closed and this morning an army of workers switched on their laptops and logged on from home. But, after the dust settles on the current crisis, will the office as we know it survive?

Those water-cooler moments.

The drama of a make-or-break meeting.

The banter and camaraderie of a bustling office.

Could this be the longer-term victim of the coronavirus outbreak once the initial shock lifts?

The demise of the traditional office has long been predicted, of course. And for many people working from home – or the new seemingly ubiquitous acronym ‘WFH’ – the current virus outbreak will not change much at all.

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Across the region thousands of people already flip open their laptops and begin a day’s work at their own kitchen table.

But now the vast majority of Norfolk and Suffolk’s office workers face the lure of a Netflix boxset and the temptation of a stockpiled fridge.

Estimates suggest around 35-40% of Britons have the ability to work from home. In the coming weeks – and probably months – this figure is likely to rise further.

Suddenly IT bods are being inundated with requests to help set up Slack and Microsoft Teams accounts. People everywhere are busily trying to figure out how this seismic shift in the way we work can be successful.

If it does – and for most people it will – nothing will be the same again.

=Even before the crisis more companies were encouraging staff to become homeworkers – at least some of the time. And recent YouGov research offers a reason behind the push: Managers believe staff are more productive at home.

Imagine if the lasting impact of coronavirus is a spike in the famously sluggish British productivity?

The poll revealed that a fifth of human resource managers are convinced staff work to a higher standard at home than in the office – and another 7% believe they work to a “much higher” standard.

But the questionnaire also revealed some trepidation from workers with only 15% believing they are better working at 
the dining room table than their desk surrounded by colleagues.

It might appear that once this is over workers who took advantage of the flexibility of not coming into the office are likely to be forming an orderly queue outside HR to ask if they can ditch the commute.

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Or perhaps not.

Back in 2016 a team of economists investigated Chinese firm Ctrip – a travel agency that employs 16,000 people. As an experiment the firm decided to have a small team work from home full time.

And to begin with it worked a treat. Employees were more productive. Labour turnover dropped through the floor. And a survey of homeworkers suggested they were happier than ever.

And Ctrip bosses were pleased as well – the firm was banking around a 1,000 dollars for each worker in saved office space.

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In fact the c-suite were so taken with the results of the experiment they dumped their offices altogether and went 100% WFH.

It was chaos.

And the biggest complaint, the economists found, was loneliness.

For some sectors the possibility seems impossible. Can creatives, for example, bounce ideas around as well on Slack as in person. I doubt it.

But Norwich-based Cassandra Andrews, a motivation and engagement specialist, believes the fabric of the country’s offices will not disintegrate because of the virus.

“The UK won’t suddenly be a population of home workers,” she said. “Some people need to be in the office. Whether that’s for motivation because they like competition, or if it’s because it’s part of their identity in a social or routine way.

“For some companies it’s just not feasible to be entirely remote.”

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She added: “When normal service resumes this will have shown businesses where their weaknesses were when it came to flexible working. It’s an increasing trend in the workplace but some businesses are still cautious about it. This will prove to them that their companies can still function when staff are working from home.”

But functioning is not the same as thriving and humans thrive on interaction. What is clearly banter in a face-to-face scenario could well be deemed highly offensive in a Slack message. And the beauty of the team is built on interaction – in and outside of the office.

What the current situation actually offers businesses is not the chance to close offices. That would be an over-reaction which for some would undoubtedly go the same way as the Chinese travel agency.

But it does offer the chance to make sure they are robust and ready for anything that is thrown at them.

As we have already seen, not all businesses will survive this. And for those that cannot just shut up shop and send everyone home the next few months will be extremely painful.

But those that do will no doubt learn a lot about their workforce.


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