The Workplace Innovations That It Took a Pandemic for Us to Discover

Toby Hazlewood

Like encouraging employees to take a lunch break?


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Each day I count my blessings that I’ve been able to work throughout the pandemic.

Sure, it might have been nice to enjoy a month or two on slightly reduced pay. But I know I would have found it hard to go back to work once the furlough ended.

I would have spent much of that time worrying about the long-term future of my job too — it’s something that already occupies a fair bit of my mind as it is.

All things considered I’m glad that I was already an established home worker and that work has continued on the same basic terms and conditions since lockdown. It’s a luxurious position that not everyone has been able to enjoy or rely upon.

During 2020, my employer experimented with a number of practices that have become commonplace since working at home became the norm. I applaud these measures, for they place a renewed focus on employee wellbeing and work-life balance. I wonder though, why has it taken a global pandemic to make such measures suddenly seem worthwhile?

Here’s how things have changed (for those who were new to home-working).

The importance of taking a lunchbreak

Ever since lockdown our entire programme team of 100+ people have had an hour blocked out in their calendars each day to encourage us to take time away from our desks. Other divisions have done the same.

Some complain that it eats into the useable time in their working day — presumably, they ignore it anyway. It seems to me that they’re usually the people who complain of being the most stressed and over-worked and who could most use the time to decompress.

I’ve always made sure to take a lunch break daily, usually to exercise and eat but occasionally just to take time away from my desk to get some fresh air. It always seemed like a no-brainer to me. I’ve never subscribed to the supposed heroism of skipping lunch. I reject the mantra that “eating’s cheating”.

That it’s now an officially sanctioned part of every day is a positive thing but it puzzles me that it’s only just been deemed important enough to suggest and enforce universally.

Whether the individual chooses to take a break or merely preserves the time to catch up on email there are benefits to everyone treating that hour each day as sacred, to use as they see fit.

An article in Forbes from 2018 highlighted that not-taking a lunchbreak is indeed harmful to employee morale and wellbeing and the same has always been true. We'd just got used to skipping lunch or to treating lunchtimes as good opportunities to catch co-workers at their desk for impromptu meetings. It’s important now, but then it always was.

Meetings are scheduled more mindfully

New conventions have emerged in how we set up and manage meetings. It’s mostly about respecting others’ time, not booking long meetings with huge numbers of people for the sake of it, or to portray a false sense of importance.

Meetings of more than two people are a last resort if the matter can’t be resolved by email or in a group chat.

They’re scheduled for the smallest window of time necessary, not defaulting to half an hour or an hour — sometimes 10 minutes is enough.

Meetings start at five minutes past the hour or half-hour, respecting the need for a comfort break or time to stretch between sessions. We are also discouraged from putting in meetings on a Friday afternoon.

While minimising meetings for their own sake, line managers are encouraged to regularly check in with their staff by phone or messenger. We’re all reminded to reach out to coworkers if we just want to chat. The importance of the social side of work in servicing our mental health has finally been acknowledged.

Again, were these only good ideas once the pandemic had struck? I don’t think so, but it’s taken until now for these principles to be implemented from the top. Even before Covid-19 came about, business leaders like Mark Cuban, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos were notoriously reluctant to attend meetings - it seems like the rest of us have merely caught up to their lead.

Collective embracing of technology

In our organisation we’ve had the same technologies at our disposal for many years — the software itself may have changed over time, but video conferencing and instant messenger tools were always installed on our laptops. It’s taken widespread home-working to get everyone used to turning on their webcams and willing to use the tech to its full capability.

It’s amusing that this comes at a time when we’re all more likely to be wearing sweatpants and t-shirts rather than business dress, working at our kitchen tables rather than in offices. It’s become the norm to see partners, kids or pets wandering around in the background. My team has gotten used to the sound of the ice cream truck pulling up outside my house routinely at 2pm each weekday. These things happen.

The technology works well, but it probably always did — it just took large-scale adoption to make us all realise it and to use it to its full potential. A survey by the UK Government's Office of National Statistics highlights that some industries are more suited than others to home working and able to exploit home working technologies for benefit. It seems clear though that the mass-employment of tools like Zoom and instant chat are likely here to stay in the workplace.

Employees now have all they need to work at home

I realise this is a blessing made possible by the size of my employer. But we now have the facility for computer monitors, keyboards, desk chairs and even full desks to be delivered to our homes if we need them.

The devices may not be cutting edge or high-end and are often well-used items that have been removed from offices.

Nonetheless, it’s a nice acknowledgment that home-working isn’t just about being able to connect your laptop to secure WiFi and then perching on the couch for 8 hours each day — we need chairs to sit on and a desk to work at if we’re to avoid long term pain and postural issues.

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Saving money on office space

I accept that companies have to plan ahead to make sure they have adequate office capacity for current and future needs. But an unforeseen event like COVID-19 demonstrates that many organisations, my employer amongst them can keep the show on the road and allow business to continue uninterrupted with far less costly office space than has been maintained.

A study carried out by video conferencing firm Whereby, asked 1500 firms about their plans for office space post-Covid-19 - 82% responded that they're considering offering more of their staff permanent home-working while 65% said they'd be downsizing on office space. With firms like Twitter and cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase announcing that they'll be working from home permanently, it seems that tides are shifting.

In my employer's case, the first few office locations are now being closed down or repurposed — the cost savings as we prepare for a long-term economic downturn will no doubt be welcomed by shareholders. I’m also in favour of anything that improves the bottom line and helps protect my role for the long term.

No need for commuting (or business travel)

The icing on the cake is the time and money saved, and the pollution avoided now that so many are working from home. I accept that some jobs will never be possible to do from home and I know that it doesn’t suit everyone either.

Many used to waste hours each day on the daily commute to and from work. A study reported by CNBC shows that the average driving commute in the USA is around 27 minutes each way, but this is far from typical. In New York, the average is 35 minutes by car and 53 minutes by mass transit.

Wherever you live, there's a good chance that you used to spend an hour or more per day just getting to and from work. Add to that the time spent getting ready, getting the kids up and out of the house and so-on and there's a fair amount of time that we've all won back in our days.

Taking back this time, along with that spent travelling for other meetings and conferences has been a major bonus for many, myself included. I suspect in truth that much of that travel wasn’t genuinely necessary in the first place though — it may be a good thing that the pandemic has exposed that fact.

Final thought

I’m not so blinkered as to ignore the many negatives that have come along with the changed ways of working.

Some of my coworkers have struggled with being at home constantly. They feel distant from their teams and ineffective as managers. They’re unable to make a space at home to work effectively. Many have missed the demarcation of their home and their work lives. While they don’t miss the commute, they miss the time it allowed them to prepare for work in the morning and to switch off in the evening.

I’m also conscious of the struggles that many city centre businesses are facing — the coffee shops, dry cleaners, bars and restaurants that catered for commuters and office workers and relied on their patronage.

The positive effects that I’ve noted above are significant and meaningful though, and I’m grateful for them — each has improved my daily working life significantly.

It’s just surprising that it took a global-pandemic for them to become widespread.

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