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COVID-19 and the workspace revolution

How the pandemic is forcing big business to look at flexible work terms and environments more favourably.

When China confirmed the outbreak of an unknown virus in Wuhan at the beginning of 2020, it took the Chinese government almost a month to lockdown the city and then the province of Hubei – affecting 57 million people and forcing millions of Chinese to work from home for the first time.

A few months later, in the US, specifically in Seattle, where the first cluster cases of COVID -19 were confirmed, companies including Amazon and Google quickly encouraged staff to adopt a remote working policy in the midst of the crisis. Twitter soon followed suit, and, as the virus continued to spread, the company made it compulsory for staff worldwide to work from home.

“We understand this is an unprecedented step, but these are unprecedented times,” said Twitter’s head of HR, Jennifer Christie at the time. “Overall, working from home doesn’t change your day-to-day work, it just means you’ll be doing it from a different environment.’’

With almost all countries in Europe now in full lockdown – and severe restrictions on movements outside the home (in France you need a permit just to walk the dog), many non-essential staff are having to stay away from the office.  And with COVID-19 infection rates still rising, they could be away for some time.  

So what sort of impact is this crisis having on the culture of work? Time will tell – but if the workforce can prove they are just as productive at home in a time of crisis, then perhaps enterprise will be open to offering them a more flexible working model in the future?

In China, the experience of working away from an office environment has been received with a mixed reaction. Some say they’re distracted by family members and find it difficult to focus or complain that bosses don’t trust them to work from home. Others say they don’t miss the commute and enjoy improved productivity – and even report better love lives! (although hopefully not during working hours).

Whatever the take home for the Chinese is, experts say the impact of COVID-19 on the culture of work worldwide will be huge.

Large companies in the West have found it relatively easy to implement the changes necessary. They can fund the upfront investment employees need in order to set up a home office. Twitter’s Jennifer Christie has already promised to pay back employees for the expenses required to work from home – and a large number of workers are already set up with a reliable internet connection at home and a suitable work area cum home office.

It might be more difficult for smaller companies in Africa however. Workers will need a secure VPN, specialist digital technology, maybe a lap top and a proper desk.

In the long run, however, both enterprise and employees will reap the rewards by offering flexible working agreements. Remote working – even for just a few days a week – has been shown to increase productivity and saves an average of £8,000 per person, per year (according to Global Workspace Analytics). There are additional savings to be had on reduced office costs as well as commuting costs (not to mention reduced carbon emissions). It also means that employers can hire anyone from anywhere in the world, opening the door to a large, international talent pool.

As Africa’s largest office space provider, some of our biggest clients are already working in a non-traditional way. Companies, like Google and Siemens, make use of their flexible workspace in Africa to set up licenses that combine full private office space and renting a few desks in shared spaces, which gives employees the flexibility to work from home if they want. These type of creative leases enables them to attract a diverse workforce, on terms which are also balance sheet friendly.

Coworking spaces are no longer just a stomping ground for freelancers, SME’s and start-ups.

These new serviced office/agile working licenses provide businesses and the self-employed the ability to set up office space which suits their business and personal requirements. Depending on their needs, they can rent a desk, hire a board room or rent a private office. With Kitchens, Phone and Skype Booths, even Book Nooks on offer for quiet reflection, large multi corporates can provide the stimulating and productive workspaces that employees are beginning to expect.  

While the jury is still out on the future of work, factors such as today’s pandemic, the rise of women in the workplace and the expectations of millennials all undeniably point to a desire for more flexible work terms and environments. The fall-out from COVID-19 has been a social work experiment few companies would have been able to implement on such a scale.  

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