I am 20 minutes into my scheduled 30-minute call with Shivani Maitra when I start to freeze. Maitra, a partner at global consultancy firm Deloitte, is leading the firm’s post-Covid-19 research into the future of work, and is giving me a seamless analysis of what business is about to look like: more autonomy, more remote work, happier workers, more accessible leadership – all facilitated by technology. But I can’t get Skype for Business to function. It’s a hot day and the connection comes and goes, leaving me contorted and sweating over my laptop.
Maitra is not necessarily wrong, but as my kids (aged three and five) thunder into the room, I can’t help but think we have some way to go. Los Angeles-based tech company PORTL Inc has promised that, in five years’ time, we will all be able to beam life-sized, talking holograms of our colleagues into our homes; right now, I think an impenetrable forcefield around my desk would be more useful. “Technology is going to be key to how we work in the future,” Maitra concedes. “But it’s going to be an enabler – it’s not going to be an answer.”
It is too early to know exactly what Covid-19 will do to office-based work (you can’t “WFH” – work from home – on a factory line, or as a surgeon, obviously). But many businesses are predicting that whatever happens next – even if there is a vaccine – this moment could represent the end of the nine-to-five as we know it, and in particular the end of vast corporate offices with banks of identikit desks.
According to a recent study by Morgan Stanley, only 34% of UK workers who could go back to the office have actually done so, and many businesses have publicly stated that they will extend the option to WFH indefinitely. Facebook has said that 50% of its jobs will be remote within 10 years; Twitter is letting almost all its global workforce WFH forever, if they like; global law firm Slater and Gordon has given up its London office; fund manager Schroders says staff can continue to work flexibly for an indefinite period, as have investment bank JP Morgan and legal firm Linklaters. Work that would previously have been considered impossible to do remotely moved online within a matter of weeks of the UK going into lockdown.
But this doesn’t mean all business districts are going to remain ghost towns. Organisations can’t just tear up their leases, and many are wary of going completely remote. They want to keep a space to bring teams together, if only occasionally. How to do this safely, without encasing everyone in Perspex or turning office blocks into hundreds of self-contained pods is the critical question. (Multimillionaire Xu Weiping plans to release prototype cube offices this autumn, as he redevelops part of London’s Royal Albert Dock.)
Darren Comber is chief executive of Scott Brownrigg, an international design practice specialising in the built environment, which not only shifted to remote working at the beginning of the pandemic, but also shifted the focus of its 300 staff to looking at ways of minimising contagion.
“One of the biggest things that has to happen is access to fresh air,” he says. “At the moment, only 10% of the air, typically, in an air-conditioned building is fresh, and 90% is recirculating. We’re going to see that flip around completely, because people want cleaner, healthier environments, and are less tolerant of somebody getting a cold at one end of an air-conditioned space, and then everyone getting it. That technology already exists. It’s more expensive, but what’s the human cost? Your staff will simply say, ‘I’m not going to go in.’”
Instead, Comber is looking at the introduction of hydroxyl radicals into indoor air. “These occur naturally outside, and are one reason your chances of catching something outdoors are less. UV lighting is making a massive difference, too.” He is keen on giving buildings, including offices, health badges, “in the same way that you have a hygiene rating system for restaurants”.
Other tech solutions include contactless facial recognition to gain access to a building; voice-activated doors, windows and blinds; app-controlled vending machines; and smart wearables that detect signs of illness, or alert you whenever someone strays into your personal space. (Raising the question of how much personal data we might be prepared to hand over to our bosses, just to get back to the daily grind.)
“We have all just been through the biggest work-life experiment in decades,” says Emma Morley, office designer and founder of trifle* creative, who has worked with companies including online stationers moo.com, Coco de Mer and Soho House. Despite having had to radically alter her latest project, a 40,000 sq ft, 500-person, 25-meeting room office building, she is excited about what this year might offer. (Social distancing means that, where there would have been six desks, there is now only room for two, with wider corridors, and far more circulation space.)
“Rather than feeling hindered, let’s turn that around and say we’ve got the greatest opportunity to create a workspace design revolution. We can say to people: what do workspaces really need to be? Because if we don’t need all those desks, happy days. Desks take up 70-80% of space – and if we’ve all got a desk or table at home that we can work on, then when we go into the office it’s about collaboration, socialisation and sharing ideas. I’ve been talking about this for 15 years – about the importance of having different types of space to work, about not filling spaces with desks, because desks are not the best places to come up with ideas. And, now, all of a sudden, it’s here.”
Photograph: Lol Keegan/The Guardian
Morley has chosen a hybrid setup for her own team, which she plans to phase in this month, as long as it seems safe to do so. “We will be together two days a week, and three days a week from home,” she says. “As humans, we need to be together. Collaboration does not happen very easily over Zoom.”
Even before the pandemic, the senior team at Awin, a global affiliate marketing agency with staff in 20 countries, was planning a major shift away from the office, having already experimented with remote working among its UK staff. When the crisis hit in early March, they were ready. “We didn’t want to take any risks – we shut everything down almost overnight,” says Adam Ross, COO, who was happy to take a breather after six years of constant travel between the UK and Berlin offices. “All 1,200 staff: one day they were in the offices and the next day they weren’t, and everything worked perfectly.”
After a virtual workshop in which the board planned for a fully remote 2023, they realised that most of what they wanted to achieve in three years could be done now. When the staff were surveyed and found to be in favour, the board decided not only to move to an entirely remote workforce, but also to a flexible four-day working week (with no salary reduction), which they hope to introduce early next year. “We realised everyone needed more time, whether for home schooling, or younger kids and the nightmare of that. Or if you don’t have family, you need time for you – so we gave everybody Friday afternoons off. It was incredibly well-received, and it didn’t reduce productivity. So we thought, ‘How can we go one better?’” In order to implement a four-day week, “we are looking at automation, easing some of that grunt work. We believe this is the way forward,” Ross says. They intend to shrink their offices, keeping some space for collaboration, but with few or no desks.
“We are going to actively discourage coming into the office every day,” Ross says. “We’re very conscious of the pitfalls that might come from having a hybrid situation, because you end up with a weird halfway house and nobody knows where they stand.” A 2019 study published in the academic journal Organization Science showed that remote employees have to do more than their in-house counterparts to get their achievements noticed, often making more personal sacrifices to do so. Although it’s too soon to have data on this, it seems likely that this will apply most to younger or newer remote employees.
“Our younger staff, when we surveyed them, did report that they loved [office] culture,” Ross says. “We had a vibrant atmosphere and a beautiful space. But [the results] were still overwhelmingly in favour of more flexibility, depending on the age group – older staff were less keen on coming in at all, and younger people wanted to come in one or two days a week.” An Awin taskforce is now researching a package to help people work wherever they choose, potentially also contributing to home broadband or utility bills. “If you give people trust, and you respect that they need a work-life balance, then they give it back to you in spades,” Ross explains.
At the award-winning architectural firm Selencky Parsons, most of the team are already – safely – back in their London office, with newly spaced-out desks all facing away from each other. “Most of our employees are young, and they don’t have massive homes to work in,” says co-founder David Parsons. The business managed lockdown by instituting virtual morning meetings and Friday beers (they got a local brewery to deliver to everyone’s home), along with Zoom quizzes.
“And that was fine for about 10 weeks, but what started to worry me was a lack of enthusiasm in the team.” He also worried that some staff were very lonely. Although there was plenty of work coming in, productivity seemed to drop. “It wasn’t that people weren’t working as hard. It was that they weren’t getting to the answers as quickly – not feeling like they could call and ask any question, at any time, as they would if they were physically next to us.”
Photograph: Lol Keegan/The Guardian
His concern was that his younger team members were missing out on both formal and informal incidental learning. “The amount you learn from just listening to other people’s conversations is huge. To be completely isolated from all that, I think, is a big problem,” he says.
This year’s abrupt shift to remote work has better suited more experienced workers, who are less in need of on-the-job training and career development, and who are more likely to live somewhere with room for a desk. A woman in her early 30s who works for a large organisation (and asked to be anonymous) told me, “It’s quite a shock, as when all this started we were told to expect a phased return in September, and then maybe not till next year. But now it’s pretty much: ‘Expect this indefinitely, with the odd day in.’ I am still coming to terms with it. I’m single, so it really is just me, all day long. Working from home suits middle-class families who have enough space and a garden. I worry about my future and meeting new people organically.”
Another woman told me about a flatshare in which the living room had been repurposed as a bedroom, to lower the rent; as a consequence, four people were all working full-time in the kitchen. Untold numbers are perched at worktops, on their beds or, in the case of my friend Jo, an ironing board.
Remote work may be very hard for some (it is also tough on carers of all kinds), but in the longer run, the tilt away from five days in the office may mean more choice about where to live. If you’re only visiting the office once or twice a week, you can live farther from it, perhaps somewhere more affordable. If you rarely visit at all, you can, in theory, live almost anywhere. And, as Maitra points out, this could create a more diverse workforce: “The most far-reaching effect is going to be [organisations saying]: ‘You can live anywhere you want to, but you could still come and work for me.’ People then don’t have to live in expensive city flats.”
Will workforces move away from cities in general, and from overpriced London and the south-east in particular? The book publisher Hachette recently surveyed its staff about which UK cities they would like to live in, and is now hunting for regional hub offices in Edinburgh, Newcastle, Manchester, Sheffield and Bristol to match the results. The pandemic has opened up a home-buying rush in the countryside: inquiries from city dwellers across the UK who want to move to a village are up 125%, according to Rightmove – and one reason is the disappearance of the commute.
Some of the downsides to remote working will take longer to reveal themselves. While people working from home may currently appear highly productive, pre-Covid research by Cardiff University, carried out in 2017, showed that they are also prone to longer hours, and struggle to set boundaries between work and home life. Even before the pandemic, remote workers reported comparatively high stress levels, according to a 2017 UN report (41% of remote workers compared with 25% of office workers).
For every Awin, which has 70 volunteers working in five taskforces (known as Wherever/Whenever; Office Redesign; Four-Day Week; Change in Mindset and Culture; Ease Workloads), there is another organisation whose employees feel abandoned. “My company has decided to go fully remote and I am despairing about it,” says Paul, an IT developer. “I used to be notorious for how fast I worked, but it was because I’d give myself incentives – lunch with a colleague, or getting out on time for a drink. Now I mostly feel like I’m wading through treacle.”
Some employees are working at an unsustainable speed because they don’t want to be forced back into an office, or because they are afraid they will lose their jobs. Juliet, who works in exhibitions, tells me: “Everybody is up for the chop. I’m trying to be as indispensable as I can. I find myself logging on at all times. The boundary between on and off is very blurred. We’re all vying to show how productive we are.” Laura, a manager who works in the energy industry, also struggles with virtual presenteeism. “Leading a team, I feel pressure to be available and online through extended hours. I need to believe it’s OK to close the laptop and switch off.” Lucy, who works in marketing and has small children, tells me she is at breaking point: “Every moment is interrupted or interruptible. My husband and I both work every weekday evening to keep up, despite not having a commute to eat into our time. There are no real breaks.”
This autumn marks a critical moment in our work culture: could it be the tipping point where office work changes unrecognisably, and for the better? Or will less enlightened organisations see it as a chance to lower their overheads, encouraging staff to work remotely and then failing to support or nurture them? For now, a hybrid model, blending the best of both worlds, looks the best bet. If you eliminate the office completely, Emma Morley argues, you eliminate “the culture and community that a business creates, and the opportunities for human beings to thrive and grow”. Whatever they choose to do, employers need to embrace the fact that this has been a year of unimaginably rapid change for their staff. Getting work wrong could lead to an epidemic of burnout. But getting it right could have huge dividends, for everyone.
All employee names have been changed.
• Solo: How To Work Alone (And Not Lose Your Mind), by Rebecca Seal, is published by Profile Books on 17 September at £14.99. To order a copy for £13.04, go to guardianbookshop.com.
Lockdown changed our sense of space as our worlds shrunk to the confines of our homes. But it also messed with our sense of time, with the monotony of our days making them feel longer.
Even our most basic units of time sometimes seemed to change. Where we’d once typically divided our days into one-hour or half-hour blocks, some of us instead found ourselves scheduling in shorter snippets of time. Instead of sitting through drawn-out, boring boardroom meetings or labouring over lengthy tasks in our manager’s line of sight, many of us found ourselves working more flexibly, flipping between tasks at a faster rate thanks to the sudden merging of our work and home lives and the increased autonomy it affords us.
In short, many people have shifted to a new normal that involves filling bite-size units of time with bite-size tasks and activities.
Studies have indicated that during periods of ongoing stress and anxiety, the brain’s prefrontal cortex (responsible for our ability to focus on tasks) is significantly weakened. But a recent report from the American management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group found that 75% of employees reported being able to maintain or even improve productivity levels in certain tasks during the first months of the pandemic.
So could the shifts in our scheduling patterns mean we’re becoming more efficient in our work and in our day-to-day lives? Jane Piper, an organisational psychologist and business coach, thinks there are significant benefits to our new way of doing things. “People are more in control of their working day now, and we perform better when we have autonomy. Our days are more flexible to better integrate work and home lives, which leads to an increase in productivity and reduction in stress,” she says.
Taking responsibility for our own schedules also means there is likely to be a reduction in presenteeism, with employees no longer putting in unnecessary “face time” just to show that they’re working. “Working from home means managers have to trust people to do the work, even when they can’t see them,” says Piper. “It changes the question from: ‘Were they present at their desk?’ to ‘Did they produce what was required by the deadline?’ A real upside of the new working landscape is what we deliver, rather than when we deliver.” Of course, it won’t be the case for everyone, she says. “For some, it has been replaced by a digital version, with managers scheduling constant meetings in a bid to force staff to be ‘present’.”
David Ogilvie, who runs The Resilience Development Company, which trains and coaches organisations to optimise performance and productivity, says: “Humans just aren’t meant to focus for long periods – brains are most productive in ‘focused sprints’ compared with ‘marathons’.”
In the programmes Ogilvie runs, clients are advised to work for no more than90 minutes and then rest for 20 minutes. “That might mean setting 90-minute chunks in your diary before breaking or switching to an easier task for the next 20,” Ogilvie says. “There are many variations out there, but the principle is always the same: watch for signs of energy flagging and then reset and start again.”
However, working in shorter bursts doesn’t mean multitasking. “Switching between tasks and multitasking is a feature of modern life, amplified by the pandemic,” says Ogilvie. “But this behaviour could be working against you – studies show that we can lose productivity if we multitask because our brain is switching focus.”
This distinction is key – and arguably explains why we can feel more productive when engaging in activity in short bursts, but less productive if we’re flitting between wildly different short-burst activities. It’s worth bearing this in mind whenever you want to make the most of handy, short-burst formats, such as the wealth of instructional videos on social media platforms. Short is good, but if you’re looking to learn a new skill or knowhow, focusing on that one subject or topic is also important. You could call it scrolling with intent.
So how do you retain the benefits of short bursts while avoiding the trap of multitasking?
Gemma Ray, a productivity expert and author of Self Discipline: A How-To Guide to Stop Procrastination and Achieve Your Goals in 10 Steps, suggests batching similar tasks to improve efficiency, and timing regular tasks to avoid falling prey to Parkinson’s law – the idea that work expands to fill the time available.
Minimising distractions is also key. “A study by the University of California states that it takes the average person 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back ‘in the zone’ once disrupted,” she says. “For some, working from home means less distractions in terms of colleagues or unnecessary meetings, which enables us to be much more productive.” Though, of course, others might fall into the unluckier bracket of domestic distractions, with children storming their 10am brainstorm or neighbours renovating their kitchen.
Explore the world of TikTok and discover the joy of learning new things in shorter bursts. What will you #LearnOnTikTok?
The Last Dance, the Netflix show about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, scored 24 million viewers around the world within a month of its April release. An audience held captive by lockdown almost certainly drove those numbers up, but still, that is a lot of eyeballs for a documentary about basketball games that happened 23 years ago.
Which makes sense when you realise that The Last Dance isn’t really a sports documentary at all, but a blockbuster superhero movie, spun out over 10 instalments, just like Marvel do them. The Last Dance turned Jordan from a sports icon into a superhero, and it did it in part by rebooting his pre-athleisure 90s look as a costume.
Superheroes have to look the part. Without the lurid 70s tricolour T-shirt, Superman is just Clark Kent with wings. Batman doesn’t even have any superpowers, but his look and accessories have always been so on point (the mask! the car!) that fans barely noticed that he couldn’t fly or walk through walls without a gadget to assist him.
Jordan’s sneakers are his Batmobile. When Nike launched the Air Jordan 1s in 1984, it predicted sales of $3m; the shoes banked $126m. Brand Jordan was born, a Nike division in its own right, and with it the mythology of Jordan as not just a basketball court legend but a hero. With serendipitous timing, the Dior designer Kim Jones last year unveiled an ultra high-end luxury homage to the thinking sneakerhead’s favourite trainer, with his handmade-in-Italy limited edition Air Dior. The March 2020 launch date was postponed due to the pandemic; by the time they went on sale in July, The Last Dance had turbocharged the Jordan hype. Even with a £1,800 price tag, these shoes were harder to get hold of than Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
The original Nike Air Jordans were red, white and black, to match the Chicago Bulls uniform. But the resulting Jordan mythology soon soared way above the basketball court and slam-dunked their namesake into popular culture. Jordan became a larger-than-life character and a visual brand, mapping out a master plan that has been followed ever since, by athletes including Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Every great fashion brand is defined by a signature shape, and Jordan is no exception. Dior had the New Look, Chanel had the boxy skirt suit – and Jordan had the supersized silhouette. Basketball worships height – Jordan is 6ft 5in, and in his prime he could jump to bring his head level with the 10ft-high rim of the hoop. The aesthetic of the classic shorts-and-vest is oversized and airy. Jordan brought this height and volume into his spectacular off-duty wardrobe, which, in the 90s, revolved around oversized power tailoring and shiny leisurewear. The suits were there to make the point that Jordan was no sporting journeyman, but a bona fide business mogul. The quilted bomber jackets, the diamond hoop earring, the signature beret. This was the 90s and celebrities came larger than life.
Jordan wore his suit jackets extra wide across the shoulder, and extra long. What fits as a jacket on Jordan would be an overcoat on almost everyone else – a neat reminder that he is no mere mortal. His trousers were pleated for extra fullness and worn belted and high-waisted for added length. It is not just the sporting footage that showcases his elongated frame in The Last Dance. When he is filmed sitting down, his knees rise into the foreground of every shot. Set against the popcorny palette of televised sports events, where every available angle flashes advertising in the national colours of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, Jordan’s suits are notable for their muted colours. He wears taupe and stone-grey, tones that in the 90s helped him stand out against his environment – and which in 2020 make him look eerily contemporary, like a supersized Kanye West.
With his cartoonish swagger and a vintage leisurewear wardrobe that could unite irony-loving millennials and nostalgia-soaked generation X, in a year where big blockbusters were off the cards, Jordan was a stand-in superhero. And why not? After all, this man could fly.