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Shall we meet in the office?

Cover of In Our View, issue 22
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With more people working from home for longer, offices are likely to become smaller and focused on collaboration

Working from home

Coronavirus has changed homeworking from a minority pursuit to a mainstream one. In 2019, just one in eight workers had worked from home in the week they were surveyed by the Office for National Statistics (see ‘Homeworking by the numbers’, p17, In Our View issue 19). By April this year that had risen to nearly half according to updated ONS data, reaching two-thirds for managers, directors, senior officials and professionals.

Socitm’s own research has found an even bigger shift, with the proportion of local authority staff working from home rising from 5% before the pandemic to 82% in May and June this year. This has generated some technology-related problems, exacerbated by a lack of training in advance of moving to new working practices. Nonetheless, nearly half of respondents said that homeworking has improved their work-life balance.

The vast majority have moved to homeworking because of the impact of coronavirus. But as employers plan for a time when Covid-19 is under control, the question is whether this inadvertent mass experiment in remote working should continue? And if so, what should happen to significantly less-used offices as a result.

“I think the future of local government has a lot less office space in it,” says Socitm President Sam Smith. “What’s become clear from this crisis is that authorities are not about the physical spaces, but the people, the technology, the procedures.”

What are offices for?

Except for those in face-to-face roles such as in social care, working from home has not damaged most employees’ productivity. But offices are about more than that.

“It’s the wraparound, seeing people you don’t normally see, the vibe of just being with other people,” Sam says. With homeworking, “we are at risk of seeing a lot of silos developing where people only interact with a certain group of other colleagues and don’t get to chat in kitchens and corridors as they would previously”.

The way we use offices could shift. No longer locations for routine work they become places primarily used for:

  • meetings
  • training
  • social contact
  • workshops
  • other team-based work

Homing in on training

Moving many staff to homeworking most of the time will create significant challenges. Socitm’s research found that just 22% of respondents had been trained in using digital tools that are essential for homeworking, while 38% had experienced issues with remote working tools.

A permanent shift of workplace to people’s homes will require replacements for the informal technical support provided by someone at a nearby desk. And help for newer staff who will need an alternative to learning on the job from those around them.

Nadira Hussain, Socitm’s leadership development and research director, says that online learning can help fill some  of these skills gaps. These arrangements could be run within organisations or across the sector. Training would provide additional skills and confidence that would boost the use and performance of platforms and tools.

As well as helping people collaborate digitally with the council, assisting citizens to do more online will enable them to save time and effort and improve their lives more broadly.

Collaboration between NHS organisations and councils running social care has long been seen as desirable. More online working could make it much easier.

Changing places

It looks likely that several economic sectors will greatly increase their use of homeworking and this will change the
communities that local authorities serve. Much attention has focused on the economic damage caused by fewer people in city and town centres. But there are advantages. Less congestion and more vibrant towns and villages – if people spend more time in the places they live.

“Local shops may get a boost and economies revive, which would help local authorities in many service areas, reducing pressures resulting from a range of issues such as poverty and loneliness,” says Jos Creese, CCL independent digital analyst and an associate director of Socitm.

There are huge changes ahead for offices, the nature of work and for individual employees. “That will impact building use, processes and service design,” says Jos. “But there is a wider impact that has yet to play out and councils need to keep in step with the needs of the public, politicians and professionals.”

This is an edited version of an article in issue 21 of In our View. Read the whole issue: Shall we meet in the office?