As we start to see the relaxation of lockdown rules and companies prepare to resume ‘business as usual’, what will the ‘new normal’ look like? For many organisations the workplace will never be quite the same again. Whether it’s minimising the number of people coming into an office and therefore saving money on rental space, reducing travel and its associated expenses, or simply offering employees more flexibility as a standard benefit, the Covid-19 experience has presented many positive outcomes that businesses can choose to continue.

We asked business leaders from across The Chemistry Works network about how their specific sector had been impacted by lockdown and whether the challenges and learnings would change their businesses moving forward.

Mark Maclure, Managing Director of Stream, a CRM and loyalty programme provider, says it has affected his staff in different ways and some have adapted better than others, depending on their role. “Our software developers are in clover,” he says. “They get to be in their homes, working away on their stuff with no interruptions; no one getting in their way.”

The need for face-to-face contact

Maclure says personally he’s found communication challenging. “I find video calls quite tiring. A day of looking at videos and trying to read people’s expressions is exhausting.” As a business, he says they’ve implemented a tighter agenda for team meetings and occasionally do them without any video to give people a break.

Prior to lockdown, Maclure was looking to reconfigure their office or perhaps even move into bigger premises to increase their meeting space, but he no longer thinks that’s necessary as some people want to continue working from home. “As a result of this, everyone has got evidence that they can work from home,” he says, “So I think businesses will change, without a shadow of a doubt.”

He’s hearing more business owners talking about downsizing offices, getting rid of fixed desks and having a rota of when people come in, along with some even more radical ideas. “I’ve heard at least one company say, we’re not going to have an office anymore, we’re all going to work from home and we’ll spend the money we save on going to a hotel once a month, staying the night, and having a really productive team meeting.”

Maclure is looking forward to getting back around the table for strategy meeting and brainstorms with his business partners. As someone largely in sales, he also misses face-to-face client meetings but the crisis has made him realise that he won’t need to travel as much anymore, now that video calls have been well established.

Simon Wright, Managing Director of Greenwich Design, moved his agency into new premises just a couple of months before lockdown hit. Despite the fact that his employees have adapted well to homeworking, he’s keen for everyone to come back to the office. As designers, he believes that inspiration is often sparked as a result of working together in a creative hub. “It’s the spontaneity of passing someone’s desk when they’re working on a piece of work and being able to say, ‘why don’t you try this’ or ‘I might do it a different way’. You lose that when you’re not in the same place.”

Saving money versus nurturing creativity

He worries that a lot of workplaces will lose their personality if decisions are made by accountants or management consultants simply looking for ways to cut costs. “The bean counters at a lot of companies are very powerful and the crisis has given them as a business case for reducing office space,” Wright says. He believes that could be seriously detrimental for the creative industry.

Wright’s company has been around for more than 50 years and, until recently, had always been a family-run business. Treating its employees like family is very much part of its ethos and he believes that having staff permanently working from home would jeopardise that. “If half the team don’t show up then that sort of personal relationship is very hard to maintain,” he says.

Video conference calls have been a necessity to keep up both business and personal communications between the team, but technology doesn’t allow for the spontaneity needed for a creative brainstorming session, for example.

Matt Wright, who runs Wright Design Ltd., a product design and development consultancy, agrees. He misses the impromptu team meetings that often occur in the office to discuss the creative details of projects or the ‘whiteboard’ moments where you sketch out something you’re working on to show your thought process to the team.

 That said, he’s been impressed with just how well his team has adapted to lockdown – deadlines have been met and productivity has remained high. “I can see as a company, we’re likely to say that if you want to work from home you can do, moving forward. We’re likely to be more flexible in the way that we approach people coming in to the office.”

Blurred boundaries between home and work

The biggest issue for Wright personally has been drawing the line between home and work. “They say people are less stressed working at home but I think there comes a point where weekends and evenings are no longer time out – you’re still at work. You have to be very careful about that and the effect it may have on your family and home life.”

He also misses the camaraderie of having his team around him: “I think there’s this kind of subliminal relationship that you have with the people that you work with; you may find them an absolute pain a lot of the time but you spend so much time with them you create a unique connection with these people. That’s important. There’s also the benefit of having many different voices around – even the dissenting ones who challenge what you do or say. We may all want to hear how brilliant we are, but being questioned is not a bad thing every now and again.”

Human interaction is essential for wellbeing

For photographer Baz Seal, that element of human interaction is essential. With clients all over the world, he’s used to having video calls to discuss projects when it wouldn’t make sense to fly, but he believes the environment and culture of a workplace, particularly in creative industry, is highly valuable to the wellbeing of employees.

He misses “the creative vibe that is tangible when working in a space with like-minded people.”  While he’s been doing Zoom calls successfully with clients during lockdown, he doesn’t see it as a long-term solution. He believes that the novelty of working from home will start to wear off for many, and while Zoom calls will continue to be used where they can save time and money, to replace overseas meetings for example, we’ll start to see the balance shift with face-to-face meetings creeping back.

Gill Heppell, a marketing strategist, agrees that while using video calls has worked well as a temporary solution to keep conversations going with clients during lockdown, it won’t work long-term for the marketing or creative industries. “If you’re doing a creds presentation or a showing off a new design you’re not going to want to present your work over a video call – it’s a really stark way to unveil any creative idea.” Not only is it difficult to physically demonstrate a new design via a shared screen, the conversation can be stilted and it’s practically impossible to judge people’s reactions, she says.

So what does the future workplace look like?

While there are many elements of the ‘old’ ways of working that business leaders are keen to return to, the past three months have created a fundamental shift in the way we all view flexible and remote working. Bosses can no longer say that working from home isn’t possible, given that employees have proven it is. But there’s also the risk of losing that valuable social interaction if everyone’s apart.

The right solution is likely to be slightly different for every company and business leaders will have to come up with their own set of rules. That might be having certain mandatory days for everyone to be in the office or flexibility around core working hours to allow people to commute outside of rush hour. Maybe it’s about minimising long-distance travel and continuing to use videocalls when it makes sense.

What we’re talking about isn’t new – many big corporations have been running virtual global teams for years. Now we have proof that flexible and remote working can be productive, however, any employer not willing to consider it as a benefit risks losing both current and prospective talent.