Surviving the lockdown: Who needs an office?

04 May 2020  |  People  |  Productivity  |  Future of the workplace  |  Trends

The lockdown enforced by the coronavirus pandemic can be regarded as an experiment in remote working – a forced acceleration of existing trends towards flexibility. The circumstances might be dire, but it’s an experiment that is teaching valuable lessons.

Along with tens of thousands of other businesses, Sketch closed its office in March. Everyone who can work from home is now doing so. Obviously there are enormous challenges – our work is all about office design, refurbishment and fitting out, which involves constant contact with clients, architects and other consultants as well as internal collaboration and teamwork.

Most of our existing contracts and projects are continuing, but our staff have had to adapt to the new, remote way of working as well as find ways around social distancing. We are conducting an ongoing home working survey to find out how they are managing and to answer key questions which will inform our future approach to the workplace.

For now, here are the views of five staffers who are wrestling with the kind of issues faced by workers around the country.

Tim Forster, Senior Designer

“I like to concentrate on what I’m doing, and that’s easier in my own space”

I’m new to the company – I actually joined three weeks before the start of the lockdown. I was getting to grips with the way the company works, and also working on a tender, when we were all sent home.

I had been spending all my working days in the office, which to be honest had been a little overwhelming. Working from home wasn’t a culture shock for me because in my previous role I worked from home three days a week. I was already set up with a desk and double monitor.

For me, there have been several positives. I like to concentrate on what I’m doing, and that’s easier in my own space with no other people around. Just me and the cat. I can get a lot done on my own. Having said that, I was collaborating with another designer on the tender, and of course there are meetings, so a good IT set-up is crucial. We’ve been using Microsoft Teams, which allows us to share a screen, showing what we’re doing and swapping ideas. It’s worked very well.

I try and keep to a routine, getting up at the same time each day and making productive use of the hour in the morning I would normally spend commuting (I definitely don’t miss the noise and crowds of the tube!). I’m lucky enough to have a good-sized garden where I can get outside and enjoy some fresh air. One thing I have to watch is making sure I stop at a reasonable time – it’s easy to get carried away and work into the evening.

I have mixed feelings about going back to the office. I’ve discovered that what works best for me is a mix of interaction and collaborative working in the office, with quiet days at home to focus on the work. Maybe this will become more commonplace, now that working remotely has been shown to be practical and feasible.

Danielle Lees, Corporate Account Manager

“I won’t deny that the first couple of weeks were difficult”

My role is all about people – I would say around 80% of my job involves client contact on their premises. There’s also a lot of travelling to project sites and architects’ offices. For me, social distancing and the lockdown was a huge problem.

For example, it came at a critical time for a big project in Watford. We were involved in signing off furniture and finishes for a new landmark building and four floors remained unfinished – largely because lockdown meant that all presentations were cancelled. In the end I had to photograph samples and fabrics rather than take them personally, but it’s not ideal. This is something that should be done face to face.

I won’t deny that the first couple of weeks were difficult with such a massive project on the go – I didn’t know how we would cope. I’m also a sociable person, used to being with friends and family, so the social distancing was hard. From a practical point of view I was lucky to have a home office. My husband and daughter are also at home, so we’ve allocated our own space – I have my office, while my husband and daughter work from the kitchen table!

As it turned out, communicating remotely via Teams was not an issue. I’m more of a speaking-to-people person who likes verbal contact – I don’t hide behind emails. In some ways communication has been better, more dynamic – I’ve found that people have become more inclined to pick up the phone and chat, where before a lot was done through emails.

I’ve got into the groove now. I’m actually getting more done, especially with the extra two hours I’m not commuting – I don’t miss the hordes on the Northern Line one bit.

I do miss the buzz and atmosphere of the office. I still think we need to be together for collaborative tasks and visiting clients. But I can see the benefits of flexible working – people who thought they had to be in the office every day have probably found that’s not actually true. Personally I would like to continue working from home once or twice a week.

Chris Tye, Major Project Lead

“Organisations have to trust their people to get the work done in their own way”

I develop and lead major projects, which generally involves leaving home at 6.30 in the morning and arriving in the office at 8.30 to set up my day. I secure a desk, make tea, check my emails, then plan the day’s actions. It might involve meetings in the office or on site or with clients in their offices.

It sounds like a lot of personal contact, but in fact a lot of my job is feasible from home. It helps that my wife and I have a full working office at home with two desks. I make tea, have breakfast, get the kids up, then sit on my laptop and go through any essential conference calls and emails.

One problem is that when you’re working in sales and major projects, face-to-face meetings are important because of critical body language cues you don’t get over the phone. Zoom and Teams are great if people actually turn their cameras on! People are getting better at it, but I think it’s a British thing not to use cameras –Americans always do! My job is easier if I can see people and read their body language.

I have noticed a few unexpected positives from working at home. It’s a healthier lifestyle – in London I snack, eat on the go and drink socially, whereas at home I reserve an hour each day for a family walk, stop work at a reasonable time and have a proper early dinner. I’ve even lost a bit of weight! It’s also been great to spend more time with family.

I get more done at home, mostly because of the absence of people – there are fewer interruptions, no one is stopping me all the time and asking questions. Yes, something has been lost from collaboration, but I think in terms of productivity, output and workflow have actually gone up.

What this experience has proved is that the tech is there for people to work more flexibly. But organisations have to trust their people to get the work done in their own way. Sketch treats its people like responsible grown-ups, but companies who have not allowed this in the past tend to be more hierarchical, with little trust in their staff. They are used to working in a certain way, but hopefully they now realise their people can be trusted to meet deadlines, wherever they are.

I think in the future we’re going to see a huge, huge change in the way the office is used. Offices will be more like a landing zone, where people drop in, meet and have a face-to-face collaboration, then leave and get their admin done in a quieter place. There will be opportunities for companies to develop home office working packages, giving people the tools to do their job in a smaller way. Perhaps this is something that we can think about.

Claire Tomlinson, Project Coordinator

“I didn’t realise how much I need to be around people”

I have previously worked the odd day at home, but nothing like this. My normal day was spent in the office, dealing with enquiries, talking to account managers, keeping my projects moving along. I can still do a lot of that from my laptop at home, but it’s harder not having the personal contact with people.

Now I communicate with account managers, clients and the project team by phone and video. It’s been feasible, although it’s hard to have the same type of relationship. It’s a different vibe – I miss seeing people’s expressions.

My home base is a one-bedroom flat with limited space, and I’ve had to set up on my dining table – which is in my living room. It does feel odd – there is no boundary between working and living, and it’s hard to switch off, or even take a break. Even at weekends, when I try to tidy my work away and relax, it’s not really possible – it’s always in view.

So while I’m coping, going into a workplace works better for me. The office environment is more productive. I also like the social aspect – I didn’t realise how much I need to be around people. It’s been a struggle to keep up the social side and stay in touch via tech.

Of course, the longer this goes on, the more I’ll get used to it. I used to work for a company not keen on people working from home, and I thought about them recently. How would they adapt? I think it’ll be a struggle for companies not used to staff working that way, who find it hard to trust them to get on with their work. At least I now know that I can work remotely, if I need to.

Gareth van Zyl, Senior Designer

“If you’re not careful you can spend all day on team and video conferencing without a break”

I deal with our larger clients, working on their new and refurbished office interiors.

I’m usually in the office early, just getting work done, when I’m not in site meetings.

This is definitely the longest I’ve ever worked from home. I’m actually managing a lot better than I thought I would. I have my own dedicated office at home, with dual monitors, a proper chair and desk, and a good IT set-up, which obviously helps.

I’m enjoying it on the whole. Removing the commuting and travelling from my day has saved a lot of time and stress. It’s also more productive, as I can fit in more meetings without the need to allow time for travelling.

There are definite lifestyle benefits. I spend more time with my partner – we’re lucky enough to have a house with a back garden and beyond that, a forest and lake. We’ll go for a run once or twice a week, I use weights and work out four or five days a week to make up for missing the gym.

I can see why people might start to feel a bit lost. Isolation is a problem, and I think it’s important to treat each day like a normal working day, with a routine. I miss the informal, social side of the office – bumping into people, having a laugh and a joke. I do miss that.

With clients I don’t feel I’ve lost so much. I’ve adjusted, doing more prep work and using more visual aids. Before, I would take a set of drawings and samples to show people. Now I create samples in electronic format and display them on a shared screen. Where a presentation to a client used to take half a day, and involve carting a lot of stuff around with me, now it could be a two-hour meeting.

I would make one point. While software like Teams has worked well, there is a tendency for people to look at your diary and think they can fill every minute. If you’re not careful you can spend all day on team and video conferencing without a break. It’s important to build breaks into your day, whether it’s getting up and making a cup of coffee, or taking time to sit outside and simply enjoy the day.

Overall I’m looking forward to getting back to the office and seeing people, having real conversations. But this has been an interesting experience, showcasing how remote working is feasible and effective. It’s proved you can be an effective member of a team remotely, and with a better office-home balance you can get more of your life back. I think there was a stigma attached to working from home – it was seen as someone who’s got the day off. But now everyone’s experienced it and seen how productive it can be.

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