The New Normal: what's next for the workplace?

Since Covid-19 first came knocking and plunged the UK into lockdown over a year ago, our working worlds have changed drastically – perhaps for good. Here, Bisley Group Sales Director, Robin Bayliss, shares his thoughts and reflections on the pandemic, and the surprising lessons we’ve learnt.



Like most people, if you’d asked me just over a year ago what 2021 would look like, I’d have given you a very different answer than the one I’d share today. I find it incredible that it’s been over a year since the first lockdown in the UK. In some ways, it’s flown by, and yet a pre-Covid world – where words like ‘social distancing’, ‘R rate’, and ‘furlough’ were known to only a few experts – feels like a long-distant memory.



My initial reaction to the question ‘How has the past year been for you – professionally and personally?’ was simply, well, it’s been hell! From the shock of the entire country getting a sudden, mandatory ‘stay home’ order, to the difficult decisions businesses have had to make just to survive in the weeks immediately following, right through to where we are now, coming out of lockdown three, having not seen loved ones in almost a year, it’s fair to say that it’s been an intensely challenging time.



But, the more I think about it, the more I realise that this uniquely difficult year has genuinely taught us some valuable lessons that we can take forward – as well as provided some surprising and unexpected opportunities.



So, what have we learnt?



We’re more agile than we ever knew



What’s abundantly clear to me – and I’m sure many others – now, is that we had absolutely no idea where this journey was going to take us. In the space of a few weeks, businesses’ five-year plans, strategies, sales targets, and fundamental ways of working were effectively torn up – no longer worth the paper they were written on. For most, that – initially – meant panic. The stress and challenge of a truly ever-changing, uncertain climate made planning in any meaningful way almost impossible.



Contradictory to our every instinct as smart business professionals, we had to abandon the plan – and simply react to what we were facing, then and there.



And, in my experience, we did.





Colleagues, clients, and contacts were quick to adopt new ways of communicating, marketing and sales tactics were adapted to an instantly digital world, novel routes to market were looked at and trialled, and most of the country conducted their day jobs from their living rooms.



What that shows me is that – as a market, as businesses, and as human beings – we have an immense capacity for agility. We might not like it, but, when forced, we can adapt, and we can embrace concepts or ways of working that, if we’d had a choice, might’ve been uncomfortable or seemed a stretch too far.



Flexibility isn’t just possible – it’s critical



A key part of our (in some cases, new found) agility, has been embracing flexibility. As well as surrendering to the fact that we can’t always plan for – and we certainly can’t predict – what’s coming down the track, the different parts of our lives have also converged in a more intrusive way than ever before.



It was inevitable, really, given that the whole country was asked to work from home where remotely possible.



So, from juggling home-schooling with endless zoom calls, to the combination of furlough and lockdown meaning lots of people hadn’t left the house in days, or the need to work around delayed service and delivery due to differing rules across borders, we’ve all had to learn to be a lot more flexible than ever before.



And it’s been a good thing.



Businesses have recognised that colleagues can, in the main, be trusted to work from home – when, where, and how works best for them. By working around other factors in our lives (albeit out of necessity initially), and yet managing to keep doing our jobs, and do them well, we’ve, shown as a workforce, that the orthodox 9-5 in the office doesn’t necessarily make for the most productive teams. Some people are at their most creative first thing in the morning, others work best late at night.



This situation has forced employers to accelerate their thinking, and above all, recognise the impact on wellness and wellbeing that a flexible working pattern can have. And it’s important. In a climate where lots of businesses have been stripped to the bare bones, what’s left is their people. And, for those people to do good work, they need to be looked after. Flexibility and trust is a key part of that. For the wellbeing of the human race as a whole, that’s got to be a good thing.



We have to use space with purpose



As the vaccine is rolled out and we return to a semblance of normal life as we once knew it, there’ll be more opportunity for face to face working – although it’s unlikely that’ll mean being in an office five days a week. That being said, continuing to work from home 100% of the time isn’t conducive to business success at all.



What this gives us, though is a real opportunity: to start looking at how and why we use space – what activity are we doing, what purpose can we ascribe to our environment, and how do we need to make sure the two harmonise to maximise productivity?



Hybrid-working, where colleagues split their time between home and a shared space, could allow businesses to really embrace this.





If you’ve got a day where you need to concentrate, get stuck into a report, and not speak to another soul for four hours – do it from home. If you’re planning a collaborative, creative session to look at new campaign concepts – it’ll work better face to face; people can bounce off each other, share ideas.



By designing specific, bespoke, fit-for-purpose spaces and environments – like collaboration hubs, creative workshopping spaces, and productivity zones – we have a chance to make sure we’re set up to achieve the task we’re trying to complete, before it even starts.



Rather than being a place where we all simultaneously stare at our screens in silence (which, as we now know, we can do perfectly well from home), shared company spaces should become a place to meet, collaborate, socialise, educate, and learn. The more focused work can still be done in the office space between meetings using single-use pods and phone booths for privacy. Thinking about it like that can only increase productivity.



In all honesty, our industry has been heading in this direction anyway over the last 10 years! All of the above – agility, flexibility, smart use of space – were starting to creep onto businesses’ radars, and lots of forward-thinking organisations had already begun implementing these ways of working, in one shape or another. What the pandemic has done is zoom us forward (pardon the pun!).



So, more than anything else, because it’s been an incredibly hard year for everyone, let’s not let it go to waste. Let’s not rush to get back to how things were. Instead, let’s take these lessons, remember them, and set ourselves up as best we can for what’s to come, whatever that may be.