Isabel Berwick: Is the pre-crisis workplace now a memory?
Isabel Berwick: Is the pre-crisis workplace now a memory? © FT Montage, Getty/PA

Over the past months, as the coronavirus crisis has disrupted workplaces around the world, we have seen a lot of predictions about the lasting effects on the world of work.

Professor Lynda Gratton of London Business School, writing in the FT last month, suggested that “during this short period of time we have altered a host of attitudes, behaviours and skills which will inform our future”.

Will our experience of work indeed bifurcate — so that we will come to view our careers as taking place in two halves: the pre-pandemic and post-pandemic eras?

Tech groups have led the way on announcing lasting change, with Twitter and Square, both companies led by Jack Dorsey, saying that employees can work from home permanently if they choose. Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has announced that the company was “aggressively opening up remote hiring”, potentially cracking open a job market that previously relied on being near one of the company’s offices. He estimated that half of its staff could work remotely in the next five to 10 years. Is that going to become the norm?

Remote working evangelists, such as Jason Fried, founder and CEO of team management tool Basecamp, have for a long time been talking about the benefits to teams and productivity of remote asynchronous work — when we can set our own working day and areas of focus, freed from the real-time — or synchronous — world of meeting-laden offices and task-oriented bosses.

But lockdown and enforced home working, especially for those also trying to look after children or caring for sick relatives, has also caused a huge rise in staff stress — and the long-term emotional impact of the crisis is going to take years to play out.

Are things at work, in fact, eventually going to go back to something like they were before coronavirus? Humans overestimate the long-term impact of the things we are living through; what futurist and NYU Stern Business School professor Amy Webb calls “the paradox of the present”. She suggests we learn to overcome it by becoming more comfortable with uncertainty.

My guess is that our desire for creativity, companionship and (perhaps) ambition will drive many of us back into our offices, especially if they are furnished with comfortable office chairs, on-hand IT help and free coffee. I am definitely on this side of the divide — and, as my colleague Andrew Hill has written, informal and chance meetings at work help drive good ideas and collaboration. “Buffering broadband and clunky videocall technology make impossible the rapid creative exchanges between colleagues used to chatting round a table.”

Is the pre-pandemic workplace now a memory? Or are things not going to be quite as disrupted as many people think?

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