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East Midlands Chamber News

‘I’m not sure the office will ever be the same again’: Tales of the ‘new normal’ inside East Midlands workplaces

Since the beginning of August, organisations have had more discretion to bring their staff back into the office as Covid-19 lockdown eases further. But is this what the people want after many months of adapting to home working life? Dan Robinson finds out from East Midlands business leaders how the so-called “new normal” could look in the professional workplace

The water cooler, coffee machine, even the bathroom entrance – all fairly unremarkable features of many an office, yet who knew how much they would be missed?

Back in the early days of March, few had perhaps taken a moment to notice their charm, but by the end of July they had become sacred treasures of a bygone era – a haphazard rendezvous point for colleagues moseying through their nine ‘til five routines.

Kevin Harris is reminiscing in the glamour of bumping into a teammate during a mid-morning coffee break, pondering on the opportunities that could follow such an encounter.

“In our office, all the best ideas don’t come from pre-arranged meetings but often from having a coffee in the kitchen with a colleague,” he says.

“You’ll overhear the water cooler conversations or people on the phone to their clients, which might give you ideas to apply to your own clients.

“Those are the more impromptu things I miss that don’t really happen on planned Microsoft Teams meetings. That conversation doesn’t take place in a remote environment.”

Kevin admits part of the office allure is important to his company RSM, the accountancy firm with 4,500 staff in offices spread across the UK, including 150 split between Nottingham and Leicester, because its business strategy relies on having a local presence for its clients.

Some high-profile firms, including Twitter and Siemens, have announced during Covid-19 lockdown that staff will now be allowed to “work from anywhere” permanently even once restrictions are lifted.

The idea is that professional workforces have proven they can continue being productive while working from home throughout the pandemic, and the “new normal” we are about to enter provides opportunities for both employers and employees to reduce costs and reset the scales of a work-life balance.

But for Kevin, who is the Leicester office managing partner, he sees no reason why a physical presence won’t continue to be central to RSM and many other professional services firms.

He adds: “Businesses are still going to want to have offices because it keeps people local to the market.

“For some firms, just having an office at all could be an unnecessary cost but in professional services, particularly the case for lawyers and accountants, so many opportunities are generated by having people working in a shared space.

“People come together with the same clients regularly and bounce ideas off each other. Those brainstorming discussions are what happen in office environments.

“That’s why it’s important to make sure we have people come together physically, not virtually.

“If you take it away, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t do your job, but you can’t do it as well.

“That’s the hidden cost of remote working because you just don’t know what you’re missing out on.”


How the 'new normal' could shape future workplaces and ways of managing employees

Research from YouGov in May found that 38 per cent of the UK workforce was working from home, a significant increase from seven per cent pre-Covid.

This may just be the beginning, as the Institute of Leadership & Management recently surveyed 1,250 business leaders, with half of those people thinking home working was here to stay and only one in three saying they would return to physical workplaces.

Kate Cooper, head of research, policy and standards at the Institute, says this provides new challenges for managers and leaders in building and sustaining relationships with staff.

A holistic approach will be key, as she explains: “We’ve had an insight into people’s home circumstances, which means you can’t ever say ‘leave your home life at the door of the office’ again.

“We’ve been in people’s front rooms, bedrooms and kitchens, and seen the complexities of their lives. So managers need to understand the whole person and not just the person who comes to work.

“That calls for a much more compassionate understanding and thinking about how you can help through your style of leadership – rather than just saying ‘these are the targets, let me know when you’ve done them’.”

The Institute’s research also found that 33% of business leaders believe companies will reduce the size of formal office space, and half of respondents expect organisations to invest more in remote working.

While this could spell bad news for the commercial property sector, Kate suggests shared workspaces could soon pop up in towns, villages and suburbs.

Perishing community assets like local bank branches – there were 3,303 closures between January 2015 and August 2019, representing 34% of the network, according to consumer group Which? – could even offer potential options as a way to keep them open.

“We’re going to see ingenuity in the way that people work together because what might get lost is the social aspect that people enjoy,” she adds.

She expects employers to move away from sticking to particular geographies when hiring staff, while Eileen Richards has already noticed a shift towards virtual recruitment.

The founder of Leicester-based Eileen Richards Recruitment, who was awarded an MBE in 2018 for championing female entrepreneurship, has filled a number of roles during lockdown without meeting face-to-face and believes hirers should get used to conducting more video interviews.

“It saves so much time and money,” she says. “It’s good for people to meet at some point but maybe this could just be at the final stage.”

Accenture has been among the global thought leaders to promote the benefits of adjusting to a new virtual-physical hybrid way of working, led by a “people-first approach”.

In the East Midlands, Eileen is detecting a determination among the workforce to hold on to the remote working practices that enabled businesses to continue trading during Covid-19.

“Everyone talks about the world now moving to flexible working, but it’s actually going to be more about having some elements of flexibility rather than an entirely flexible working model,” she says.

“It might just be something that allows them to work from home on a Wednesday morning so they could take the kids to school, do a workout and work on a project. Or it could be three days in the office and two at home.

 “There’s a lot of people who want a better work-life balance. I’ve spoken to some people in senior positions now saying they realise life isn’t all about money and they’d rather spend more time with their family than earn a higher salary without having that flexibility.”

But she cautions against too much haste to ditch the office life as the novelty of home working could soon wear off.

She adds: “Sometimes change is exciting and we’ve seen higher job satisfaction in our surveys.

“We’ve been able to train every day, had more time with the family, and haven’t had to do the commute or eat at silly times. But we haven’t been in this for long enough to see what that outcome will eventually look like.”


Technology has key role to play in making workplaces safe in 'new normal'

As the staff at a global logistics firm’s Leicestershire depot roll into work each morning, they are met at the entrance by a scanner that takes their temperature.

While scientists still don’t know what proportion of people with coronavirus have a fever, it’s one of the most common symptoms of the disease so access to the building is only granted if the reading is below a certain threshold.

The technology was developed by Peckleton-based Meridian Digital Solutions, which usually develops hardware for self-service machines used in shops, transport hubs and smart lockers.

Covid-19 triggered the company – which was set up in August 2019 as a UK spin-off from the North Carolina firm Meridian – to pivot into developing the personnel management systems positioned at the entrances of offices, factories and even the iconic Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London.

They mobilise facial recognition software and managing director Andy Viner says it’s an example of how technology can restore confidence among employees who are being urged to return to their workplaces.

“If you’re asking people to trust you to bring them back, you need to think about what you’re doing to make them feel comfortable.

 “They could be spending eight to ten hours in the office each day, with lots of visitors coming and going, so having some sort of test before they enter can put them at ease.”

The reluctance of some companies to jump headfirst into a new tech-driven era of productivity could be history, with half those surveyed by ILM believing their organisations will invest more in remote working.

Lee Johnson, chief technology officer and head of cyber security at Sandiacre managed IT services provider Air IT, says: “Often it’s the most senior people in the business who don’t use technology to its full capability, but I’ve spoken to chief executives who are tech laggards and they’ve been forced to use video conferencing tools.

“Now they can’t see how they operated without it and businesses that wouldn’t have invested so much in technology are being propelled three to five years into the future.

“Businesses are going to move away from being in a single location, so they might choose to replace landline phones with using software like Microsoft Teams as their phone system – meaning they can operate from anywhere in the world.”

A rapid uptake of cloud adoption to enable agile working and remote collaboration also equates to a greater emphasis on cyber security.

“Some organisations are using systems in ways that they weren’t originally designed for,” says Lee.

 “Companies with a 20% remote workforce all of a sudden have 100% of their people working from home.

“While they would have had security provisions in place for the 20% element, now the scope is much bigger.

“They’re using their computers and devices on home networks so security is effectively becoming borderless, which means organisations need to think much deeper about having some level of protection for both inside and outside the office. So we believe this situation will be a real catalyst for change.”


Does the 'new normal' even exist?

From “furloughing” and “flattening the curve” to “social distancing” and “self-isolation”, 2020 has thrown up numerous new words and phrases for us to over-use.

And while the “new normal” is flavour of the month in the business world, it doesn’t have a fan in Mark Robinson.

The managing director of Creative62, a creative brand agency he founded in 2007, says: “I really don’t like the phrase ‘new normal’ because it’s suggesting that things have to change”

“If that’s the case, why am I getting a client asking me to meet up in person for a coffee soon?

“The only difference is I’m going to suggest we have more online meetings so we increase the frequency of communication, but that’s just an evolution rather than having to invent a new normal. Don’t overlook getting back to what you did before because that works too. If you challenge yourself too much to not be normal, then you might overlook what works well.”

He uses the example of restaurants that have pivoted to offer takeaways during lockdown.

“But it doesn’t mean they should only ever do takeaways again because that’s not why people went there in the first place,” adds Mark, who has worked alone in the company’s Enderby office since day one of lockdown but admits he is looking forward to his five colleagues returning.

“We just need to be careful about how we change our brands because we could end up changing the entire dynamics of our business.”

Like Mark, RSM’s Leicester office partner Kevin is eager for a return to the world he knew before, but recognises it probably won’t look quite the same anymore.

“Even if there’s a vaccine, I’m not entirely sure offices will ever be the same again,” he adds.

“People’s working practices will clearly change based on this experience and a large proportion of people will not be working in the office five days a week.

“A lot of employers weren’t very open to flexible working but this will act as a catalyst to do that, which is a good thing because it creates trust and enables people to take more control of their lives.

“So we could come out of this positively, but no doubt it will change how people look at work forever.”


This article appeared in the August/September issue of the Business Network magazine. Click here to read the online edition.