Back to reality?

06. May 2020, Editorial

Austria is a trailblazer when it comes to loosening coronavirus restrictions and gradually returning to life as “normal”. At many companies, employees are due to start returning to work in May – but in phases. Compulsory face masks, social distancing and hand sanitiser will replace baskets of fruit. One thing is certain: our working lives will be turned upside down. But what will a return to the office actually look like after all this time working at home? What’s going to change?



No end to home working in sight

Although adapting to working from home and the restrictions that came with it was tough to begin with, people have now got used to their new set-ups. For many, not having to go into the office is a bit of a luxury as it means more sleep and wearing what they feel like, while also liberating them from the daily scramble for a handhold in the packed U3 at eight in the morning alongside 200 other people. And the statistics show how many of our day-to-day rhythms have been changed by the corona crisis and working from home. A look at electricity and water meters reflects the true magnitude of the changes to our schedules: people are sleeping longer during the crisis. Before corona, water consumption hit its peak between 7.45 and 8.15 in the morning, but that has now shifted to 9.30-10am. Home schooling and working from home eliminates that daily commute or school run, meaning a much more leisurely start to the day for many.

According to Magenta CEO Andreas Bierwirth, telephone calls went up 100 percent and data use jumped by an average of 40% during lockdown. And Bierwirth confirms: “Working from home is here to stay. Working from home has changed us.” The Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz noted in one of his press conferences that working from home was running well in other parts of government and that companies should look to retain teleworking as an option.
But what  does the shift towards increased working from home actually mean for our everyday office lives? Have traditional office formats and the concept of physically working together had their day?

Everyday office life? One step at a time!

Preparations for a return to office working are in full swing for auditors Deloitte in Austria as it also puts in place the necessary measures to ensure that its employees are kept safe. To begin with, only those employees who require access to specific infrastructure or who are needed on site for operational reasons will be permitted to go to the office. Masks are mandatory and a hand sanitising station has been installed at the main entrance.

Leading refractory products manufacturer RHI Magnesita is opening its Wienerberg HQ. However, no-one is obliged to come to the premises, confirms company spokeswoman Lisa Fuchs. Strict safety measures such as taking temperatures on arrival and wearing gloves and masks will now shape the daily realities of office life.

In the Netherlands, companies are going a step further. The offices of Cushman & Wakefield in the heart of Amsterdam’s business district have already been adapted to life under corona: to help make sure that everyone complies with the measures and associated safety and hygiene rules, the walls and floors are plastered with blue arrows and red stop signs marking out the only permissible route through the four-floor office building. And if that wasn’t enough, mini-transponders and anonymised mobile phone data are used to monitor whether employees are sticking to the designated safe routes. Big brother or a necessary health precaution? It remains to be seen how this model will evolve in future.

People who live in plexiglass houses…

Anyone who wants to follow the new pronouncements to the letter of the law faces a massive conundrum: how to stick to the distancing rules. This means that only every second workstation can be cleared for use, and some companies will even have to put up plexiglass barriers to ensure that they comply with the safety rules.

Taking Magenta as an example, this means that only a quarter of the workforce will be able to return to the office due to desk sharing. As now, meetings will take place online. Greater flexibility on how they deploy their human resources is an interesting aspect for many companies as it has the potential to reduce the amount of space needed and cut costs. In the view of Peter Trawnicek, VMware’s Country Manager for Austria, companies should avoid falling back into old habits and routines  once the pandemic is over. Businesses need to learn from the current situation and implement the necessary measures going forward. This also means that working from home is set to be part of our new office lives for some time to come. For many companies, teleworking has turned out to be a crucial factor behind their ability to carry on operating and the only way of maintaining any form of continuity. And they will need to carry on with it.

A push towards “remote first” is another interesting development that has the potential to help companies along the road to long term success. This will also remove the distinction between employees who work at home and employees who work on site, creating a climate and working practices that assure optimal productivity as well as a sense of belonging and well-being among all employees. What might sound easy to start with is in fact anything but. As many people will have experienced over recent months, getting your head round all those Zoom meetings is hard enough, but having to carry on scheduling meetings and sort out new projects with colleagues via WhatsApp and email is going to call for perseverance and nerves of steel. But it’s totally normal for the odd detail to get overlooked, or for things to get lost in communication. And it’s not as if it is going to be all that much easier behind plexiglass either!

Working from home for the future

Looking  at the bigger picture, the world of business is going to have to take away some lessons from the current crisis. Unnecessary flights for conferences and meetings can be done away with thanks to video conferencing, saving hundreds of thousands of euros in the process.  And it’s good for the environment too: since the crisis started, we can see just how positive an effect social distancing has had on our environment, with C02 emissions down sharply as air travel and road traffic have fallen. According to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, in February China’s CO2 emissions were down by 25% on the same period a year earlier. This translates into a reduction of around 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Putting an end to the daily commute by car, train or underground has the potential to do more for the natural environment than any government white paper ever could.

And from an innovation perspective, the pace is set to pick up even more in future. Thanks to the surge in digitalisation triggered by the corona crisis, it will be much easier for people to work digitally and remotely in future, just as if they were actually at the office. And on top of this comes the personal well-being side of things. Lots of employees find that they work much more efficiently at home and save time by not commuting or having to nip out to the baker to get something to eat at lunch time.

So we can safely say that changes are in the offing. From informal chats by the watercooler to the way we greet our colleagues, we are all going to have to get used to the lack of contact and other social restrictions. Companies are also going to have to put the infrastructure and suitable platforms in place so that employees can continue to telework safely, flexibly and efficiently. For how long? No-one can say. Over the coming months, the long-term effects of Covid-19 on the economy and our everyday working lives will become more apparent. Until then, waiting and tea drinking is the order of the day.

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