Will workers ever return to a five-day week in the office?

Estimates are that around a third of the Irish workforce are currently working remotely from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The widespread use of laptops, together with corporate VPN connections and video-conference tools, has enabled entire companies to close their doors during the lockdown and have pretty-much their entire workforce continue working remotely.

The technology that previously enabled staff to work remotely occasionally – perhaps for one day a week, or while travelling – has now being used full time for the last seven weeks. And many people are finding that they are just as productive working from home as they used to be in the office.

And while many consider this home working as a temporary situation until the pandemic restrictions lift, there are some people – including those at executive level – that are seeing this as potentially a more permanent shift in the way we work.

The are obvious advantages and disadvantages to remote working. We can avoid the horrible commute, spend more time with the family, and perhaps have a bit more flexibility in working hours – but at the same time, we lose something from not being able to interact with our colleagues in person, and there are many that prefer the structure of an office environment.

And let’s not forget the many people who currently struggle to work from home – either because of lack or space or adequate resources, or because of interruptions from family members or house mates. There are lots of people that don’t have the luxury of a separate office in their house, and instead are crowded around a kitchen table, or balancing a laptop on their knees on a bed or sofa.

The new normal

Who knows when we’ll ever return to anything approaching the normality of our pre-pandemic work life. Even if offices start to re-open in the coming weeks, it might not be safe to commute on public transport, and people might still have caring responsibilities that keep them at home. And so even if offices are open, it doesn’t mean that everyone will be able to return.

There also might not be enough room in offices for people to physically distance themselves properly from colleagues.

One suggestion is that we might have a phased return to work, where different teams might come into the office for maybe one or two days a week, and continue working from home the rest of the time. That at least would allow companies to reduce the number of people in the office and enforce distancing rules.

Another concept I’ve heard being talked about is hoteling. This is like a mixture of hot desking and remote working. The idea is that people are primarily based at home, but can arrange to come into the office for a specific purpose, and use a reservation system to book a desk or meeting room for that day. It means the end of having your own desk in the office, and also the end of the office being your default work location.

Some companies love this hoteling idea, because it would save them a fortune in office leasing costs. But if a lot of places started adopting it I’m not sure what would happen with all the new offices being built all over Dublin at the moment!

The long term

With all the uncertainty about what’s happening, it’s impossible to know how our jobs might be impacted in the future. But I think it’s important to consider the possibility of continued home working, at least in some form, over the longer term.

We need to start thinking now about what long-term home working might look like. Is it even possible to work from home permanently? Is there enough space for a dedicated work area? Is sharing a kitchen table with a partner or flat mates sustainable over the long term?

And what about getting a proper desk and chair, and the same IT kit (multiple monitors and docking stations) that we enjoy in the office? Are employers going to pay for people to have a safe and comfortable home office setup?

There’s a lot of unanswered questions about what work might look like over the coming months and years. However I’m guessing that one thing is fairly certain. There are going to some workers that will never again return to working 5 days a week in an office.