As coronavirus spread around the world in the early spring, many workers were forced to adapt to working from home. Some changes will outlive the pandemic; others may come to symbolise this tumultuous moment in history. What do you think should change for good? Join the discussion in the comments below this article.
The meeting room vs the Zoom call
Of the many existential questions raised by the pandemic, one that has not yet been answered is: what are meetings, and meeting rooms, for? Zoom’s revenues quadrupled in its latest quarter. Whether it survives growing competition from Microsoft Teams or a vaccine-induced return of workers to the physical workplace, its name will live on as a synonym for “to videocall”.
Even so, the endless Zooming provoked unlikely nostalgia for face-to-face meetings, particularly those serendipitous moments at the beginning, before the chatter congeals into formal discussion and, at the end, as participants leave the meeting room with a casual “oh, one last thing” that may trigger the most important interaction of the day. Neither Zoom, nor any of its rivals, has found a way to soften the abrupt exit from a virtual conference into silence.
As offices reopen, building owners and interior designers stand ready to convert traditional conference rooms into attractive, bookable “ideas spaces”. The big challenge for 2021 is not Zoom versus the meeting room, though: it is how to provide hybrid workers — some remote, some in-office — with a place that strikes the right balance between online and offline, social distance and creative proximity.
Work jackets vs jogging bottoms
As with so many areas of life, the pandemic accelerated pre-existing trends. Last year, Goldman Sachs issued a relaxed dress code for bankers, while suggesting that “casual dress is not appropriate every day and for every interaction”. Only a few months later, “Zoom casual” had become the order of every day, for almost every interaction. Fashion houses devoted themselves to waist-up demand; sportswear companies catered to the bottom half. This look was summed up by a New Yorker cover depicting a video-dating young woman with immaculate hair and hoop earrings at screen level, while below-screen was a mess.
This enthusiasm for tracksuit trousers and yoga leggings showed a desire for comfort, allowed room for waistlines expanded by all-day grazing and enabled those away from the office to nip outside for government-sanctioned exercise.
It proved to be devastating for dry cleaners used to servicing white-collar workers and retailers offering corporate attire. In July, Brooks Brothers filed for bankruptcy. Others tried to adapt to the new workplace. LK Bennett, for example, a brand popular among female office-workers, posted on Instagram in April, “The beauty of the moment is that every day is like the weekend”.
Some predict this era will be the end of formal workwear, others expect office returners will relish dressing up for work. If the future really is hybrid, the truth is probably both.
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The commute vs the park walk
Lockdown was not a walk in the park for many, but for those lucky enough to have access to open space, a park walk became a welcome replacement for a sometimes harrowing commute. In the US, according to figures analysed by academics David Autor and Elisabeth Reynolds, each worker could save on average 225 hours a year spent commuting. Those working from home reaped benefits in money saved on costly season tickets and in fresh air and exercise. Mass transit systems, conversely, suffered.
During a sunny northern hemisphere spring, the park walk was balm for stressed homeworkers. The canny among them managed to combine it with walking meetings, an innovation beloved of the late Steve Jobs. What works in California all year round, however, proved less sustainable in a drizzly northern Europe winter as time freed up by not commuting was gobbled up by screen-work.
Only 5 per cent of workers surveyed in October by Morgan Stanley in the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, where the commute averages 39 minutes each way, said it was their main reason they were working from home. Some 56 per cent said it was either their employers’ decision or their office was closed. If and when the office ban lifts, a few may even welcome a half-hour in commuter limbo to demarcate the blurred boundaries between work and home.
The office chair vs the kitchen bench
In the age of coronavirus, the ergonomic chair was a status symbol, denoting homeworking privilege for those tapping at their laptop from a dedicated home-office, while less fortunate peers perched on kitchen benches or the side of the bed. No surprise then that just a few weeks after lockdown was introduced in the UK, the Institute for Employment Studies found a “significant increase in musculoskeletal complaints” among employees, especially in the neck, shoulder and back. Only 57 per cent of homeworkers around the world were satisfied with their chair, according to Leesman, the workplace research group.
These aches and pains fuelled demand for comfier chairs for home-workers. Some companies, such as Twitter, footed the bill, as the furniture stipend became the new home-work perk. For those without the luxury of a spare room to work in, the demand for 2020 was for softer fabrics in warmer colours to fit with domestic interiors, says James Lawrence, senior strategist in the workplace consulting studio, Gensler London. In a hybrid office-home work future, furniture will need to adapt. The race is on, says Mr Lawrence, to find a “simplified home-office chair which will be more in keeping with the home aesthetic and adaptable”.
The Pret sandwich vs the home-made sarnie
Since the Earl of Sandwich first ordered a snack in the 18th century, his creation has rarely been freighted with such significance. The shift from ready-made lunch, bought in haste and wolfed down at a crumb-filled keyboard in the office, to homemade “sarnie” (made in haste and wolfed down at a crumb-filled keyboard at home) came to symbolise not only a culinary change, but an economic transformation.
The plight of London-centric chain Pret A Manger became an index for the hollowing out of city centres. Between lockdowns in the UK, politicians and business leaders urged workers to return to offices, with what sounded to some like a back-to-front argument that an entire support network of pubs, cafés and sandwich bars would otherwise collapse.
The one constant has been the handheld snack itself. Sixty per cent of all homemade lunches are still sandwiches, according to Dublin-based Greencore, which produced 700m ready-made sandwiches for supermarkets, cafés and food outlets in 2019. More than a third of people working from home are going out to buy pre-prepared “food to go”. Pret is opening its first delivery-only “dark kitchen”. The proportion of orders made on mobile phones by Chinese customers of Starbucks more than doubled in the year to September. It is no consolation for family-owned city-centre cafés, but the laziness of the hungry, time-poor remote worker may yet save the big chains.
The water cooler chat vs the WhatsApp group
Once, the water cooler was fundamental to the “history of the office”, says Sheila Liming, author of a new book on the subject. It exemplified two of the office’s purposes: the sharing of resources and communicating ideas. In doing so, it became shorthand for informal work chat and gossip.
Yet even before the pandemic turfed workers out of the office, social media had become the forum for water cooler chat. Why wait until the morning after to discuss the cliffhanger in the latest television whodunnit, when you can “twatch”, or tweet while watching? WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging platform, became a work side-channel, indispensable for virtual office banter and work collaboration.
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Kantar, the research group, found that by August, 65 per cent of WhatsApp users reported increasing use over the pandemic. Participants on Zoom meetings became adept at spotting colleagues’ furtive glances, a sign they were simultaneously WhatsApping a critique of the online gathering. This informality was both its appeal (flattening hierarchies) and its drawback (duping the user into false intimacy, and potential career-damaging blunders). By the end of the year, employees were complaining of pandemic burnout: overloaded with multiple forms of communication and unable to switch off from messages that could arrive at any time of the day. In response, some companies turned to tech-free days.
Join the debate
As we have adapted to working from home en masse, which changes do you think will outlive the pandemic; which will come to symbolise this tumultuous moment in history? What do you think should change for good? Join the discussion in the comments below this article.
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