Anita Khan from housing association Settle thinks about what the future housing workplace might look like – and if offices still have a role to play
Arundhati Roy recently wrote an incredible piece in the Financial Times, in which she said: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway, between one world and the next.”
“Now we know that working remotely is possible for many of us, is this how we want to remain?”
To me, this is absolutely right; the biggest failing would be for us to return back to life, and work, as we knew it before. We have already experienced the pain of change that perhaps we spent a long time avoiding (I’m talking about video calls!). We’ve learned how to work remotely when many claimed it wasn’t possible. We’ve managed to ‘meet’ and stay in touch with colleagues and probably conversed more now than we ever did in the office. So, now we know that working remotely is possible for many of us, is this how we want to remain?
Many businesses will see an opportunity for efficiency – why bother with the cost of offices when we now know it isn’t necessary? Will this be the thing that becomes the differentiating factor between those organisations who believe having a place of work is an important part of an organisational cultural and those who will come out of this time simply seeing them as a redundant cost?
“While senior executives may have spare rooms to set up home offices, this may not be the case for all colleagues. For some it will be the physical space, for others it may be the emotional space”
We’ve all established new ways of working. Business leaders in all sectors are warning against the risk of losing all the good we’ve learned. This is certainly the case for us at Settle – there have been lots of great pieces of agility and innovation that have allowed us to thrive. There’s a danger that colleagues associate this way of working with this time and when we ‘return to the office’ we retreat back to the behaviours and ways of working that are familiar with that working environment.
So, it would be easy enough to say if things are working now, why bother changing them – keep the offices closed, right? The challenge for business leaders is to remember to accommodate all. While senior executives may have spare rooms to set up home offices, this may not be the case for all colleagues. For some it will be the physical space, for others it may be the emotional space. I see lots of colleagues struggling to work from home.
From a personal perspective I’ve always enjoyed working from home. For as long as I can remember I’ve worked a day a week from home. It’s the day I always look forward to; I can set the agenda for the day. We mobilised our business continuity plan on 16 March and most colleagues started working from home. The first couple of weeks felt novel – how great to have this technology and be able to do the job at hand, without travelling 52 miles each way.
“I do look forward to being able to go into the office, seeing colleagues in human form and being able to work in an environment where I feel energised from being around people”
However, by week six I was feeling on the verge of death by video calls! Suddenly working from home was not like I remembered it, it wasn’t a day at my own pace. It almost started to feel a bit intrusive – I had colleagues in my spare room or the living room. While my colleagues are lovely, after feeling like they had been in my home every day for six weeks, I felt like I needed a break. It’s worth remembering that none of us chose to work in this way.
Something else that we maybe take for granted is the ‘transition time’ between work and home, or even between meetings. There’s no segue of travel, simply a fluidity from one state to another, which has its appeal but can also feel like there is no beginning and no end.
I can’t imagine a world where I go back to commuting into the office four or five times a week, where I have a 100-mile round trip each day. But I do look forward to being able to go into the office, seeing colleagues in human form and being able to work in an environment where I feel energised from being around people.
Settle is a business that has always valued our culture, and engagement is at the heart of that. Fundamentally we believe that humans need humans. That’s why our response to this has been what it has – centred around supporting customers and colleagues. Our culture and commitment to social purpose has been cultivated through our engagement; that’s how we protect and grow our values.
This is the time to rethink our workspaces – do we need rows and rows of desks? I would say it’s important we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. While we want to embrace the new, we don’t want to completely disregard the old. A more effective use of space might be by creating more collaborative and open workspaces, so the times we choose to go into the office are to collaborate or to create. We re-contract our relationship with the place of work; it’s a place we go for a specific purpose. We don’t just go to a place to work on autopilot at arbitrary agreed times.
In our reimagined way of working we focus on value rather than routine.
Anita Khan, executive director of customer services, Settle
11.06.2020 13.37pm UPDATE
This article was updated because it originally included the wrong Twitter handle for Settle. The correct handle is @settlecomms