As thousands of executives continue to work from home during the pandemic, many are asking the question, is work as we know it going to change forever? While in the short term, remote working is an effective measure to help combat the pandemic, over the long term, the impact of having workforces in separate locations is likely to have more negative consequences than positive, believes Tasso Evangelinos, CEO of the Cape Town Central City Improvement District (CCID).
Cape Town companies appear to agree. Rob Kane, CEO of Boxwood Property Fund and Chairman of the CCID, recently informally polled CBD-based businesses. 25% were already back in the office, and 80% have indicated that they would reoccupy their offices by year end.
Evangelinos says while technology has allowed for productive home-based work, this is no replacement for the office. “Working from home goes against human nature in many ways. Firstly, there is loneliness. The office offers laughs, sharing, caring, problem solving, support – all of which are extremely important to humans, we are social creatures. For many of us, the impact of solo working is already starting to be felt. The novelty of not having the commute is starting to be replaced by a need to move, have somewhere to go in the morning, someone to talk to – the need for a change of scenery.”
Stats back this up. A recent survey by Giant Leap, one of South Africa’ largest workplace consultancies, revealed that 86% of people wanted to go back to working in an office. While remote work was initially very popular, people slowly realised that there was a lack of work life balance. People also reported feelings of isolation and difficulties in carrying team tasks, with many missing their co-workers. This correlates with Weforum’s finding that the second biggest struggle for remote workers is loneliness. Issue number one is unplugging after work as boundaries blur and clients keep emailing well past the 5’ o’clock mark.
He also believes that the workplace is critical to innovation. “Particularly in the digital era, companies thrive when they are constantly evolving and reinventing themselves. With the disconnect that comes from everyone being separated, it is hard to imagine that innovation will thrive.”
Kane says when you really start thinking about it, over the long term, working from home just isn’t natural. “It is hard to imagine that we will still feel as bonded to the companies we work for in a year or two. As a result our passion and motivation will start to decline. Will our company culture be able to survive and thrive? Will we be able to keep our energy up if we essentially go nowhere on a daily basis? ”
He said another negative impact is the difficulty of transferring skills remotely. “The benefits of being in the same space as colleagues is vital for upskilling less experienced employees. Every day there are hundreds of conversations and interactions that facilitate the transferring of skill. Overhearing two senior people solving a crisis, sense-checking an email quickly with a colleague, running a new idea past your manager; all of these allow newer team members to learn the ropes. This is far more challenging if colleagues are not physically together.
Why we need the office
A recent Guardian article delved deeply into the mental health issues associated with working from home (WFH). It referenced a survey by Jefferies that found 61% of 1500 respondents would return to work immediately if possible. Its other cited survey asked 5000 HR bosses why their teams want to go back to the office. The overwhelming answer? Social and mental health issues like loneliness.
Organisational ecologist, Leon du Toit, says the office provides a degree of structure, rhythm, discipline and predictability. This gives managers a critical level of control over the delivery of work and it creates boundaries for employees to keep most of their work at work. However, while he believes the office will stay, he also thinks we could radically transform how we perceive the traditional 9 to 5, rewarding people for the value they bring, rather than the hours they sit at a desk.
A final problem? Many people simply haven’t got a home set-up conducive to productivity. During lockdown, childcare has played a major role, with public schools being shut. South Africa also has high data costs, and many people are not adequately connected. Then there’s load shedding affecting different staff at different times – large meetings become difficult to coordinate.
The CBD without the office
The office is critical to innovation, business success and our humanity. And the same goes for the Cape Town CBD. Without occupying office space within the CBD, a severe knock-on effect will occur on an already dampened city centre ecosystem. Without the influx of office workers, more retailers and small businesses will suffer. This all results in a less vibrant CBD, which has ramifications for myriad sectors, including tourism and transport.
Evangelinos concludes, “The office may evolve not as much as many think it will. The pandemic has shown that remote working is possible. However, the long term effects have yet to be measured. We know it has made us miss each other. It’s shown our craving for connection. Our CBDs are also reliant on our offices. Retailers, residents and offices all exist together. Remove one from the ecosystem, and our cities may need to be reimagined and repurposed.”