Chris Read: London work trip concentrates the mind on workplace change

Chris Read returns to RP with his latest lockdown thought of the week. He took a trip to London to test the work waters, here's how he got on...

Night view of Big Ben and Westminster Bridge in London http://dl.dropbox.com/u/1999508/LB/londonLB.jpg

It’s my first trip to London from the south coast since March. I’m meeting an old colleague for lunch. I am hoping he may be interested in re-joining us. I must say, I’ve been quite excited all weekend about my London adventure, a guilty pleasure no less.  I could have organised the meeting at our out of town office but, with excitement and anticipation, I insisted on arranging the meeting in London.

Monday morning, with joy and amazement the suit still fits. Actually, I have a little more wriggle room. The summer has been kind, despite the abundance of wine and a slower pace of life. During this time, the lockdown has been a time of concentrated and accelerated change. Our behaviours, habits and routines have transformed, for many of us, for the better.

The industry has experienced new forms of working. Working from home has proved to be a model that works. Productivity seems to be holding up. Generally, it is agreed that creativity and collaboration between work colleagues has been more challenged, notwithstanding questions over mental health for remote working for such long periods of time.

In any event, we have flagship companies like Schroders announcing that working from home is to be a permanent feature for many more of us. Those business with large offices, where there is the need for mass movements of staff across multiple floors, will also be considering new working practices. I suspect a few more will follow suit and announce more flexible working arrangements.

There are of course business functions that don’t support remote working as well. Call centre and support operations seem to operate better with office based centralised telephony and technology. In my company, the marketing and creative people are starting to nudge their way back to the office for a more collaborative experience. Company directors are wanting to be seen to be working by example and are making tentative forays into the office. The software folk, however, seem to be firmly anchored in their home working arrangements and any request to return to the office is being met with resistance and incredulity. 

Isn’t it bizarre how easy it is for us to change and how we get accustomed to new norms so quickly? A group of young people at the train station, flouting rules to wear face coverings, receive newfound disparaging judgement.

Societal norms are definitely in flux. Once on the train, only two other people kept me company in the carriage all the way to Waterloo. Alighting at Waterloo, I stepped out into what seemed a very precisely-choreographed film set of socially distanced, be-masked extras. Happy Feet came readily to mind, a surreal scene indeed.

I’ve not plucked up the courage to travel on the Tube yet, so a Black Cab sped me to my destination to be greeted by a temperature ‘gunner’ on arrival. The location in town for lunch, once a busy bustling hive of business clientele, has given way to a splash of tourists and some local drop-ins.

Conversation meandered around comings and goings in the industry: who’s doing what, the effects of the lockdown, concerns for forthcoming recessionary pressure and the usual people gossip that industry colleagues are comforted by. It was great to talk, lovely to be with other industry practitioners and nice to know I hadn’t lost my memory of who’s who.

An uneventful journey home, masked of course, the commute was easy. It’s not until you get home that you really feel it, like you’ve done a few bouts in the ring. Weariness from the commute and a bit of guilt on how little was achieved in the day weighs heavily on the energy levels. A day of low productivity in some ways, although it was lovely meeting real people in person.

As I reflect on what the future of our working patterns will look like, I am re-affirmed of the view that real change has occurred over the 160 days or so since lockdown changed our working habits. I look forward to more companies stepping out and re-defining their policies for flexible-working. I suspect the rush hour commute is a thing of the past too.

Our focus must now be on mental and physical well-being for home workers. Will HR departments need to learn more about ergonomics and occupational health? Perhaps there will be a new genre of building services to ‘upgrade’ homeworking arrangements, or a mobile IT support service a little like ‘meals on wheels’. Whatever will become the new norm it will take the support of business leaders to believe and be at the vanguard of this concentrated and accelerated change. 

Chris Read is group CEO of Dunstan Thomas