Guest Blog: The world of work – what lies ahead?

‘The changing world of work’ was a theme explored at last year’s ACOSVO conference, and revisited at an ACOSVO CEO Check-in earlier in 2021. 

As we look ahead to the summer and the timetable for the easing of restrictions, we will have new territory to navigate in our work interactions, as Julie Hutchison, Charities Specialist at Aberdeen Standard Capital, explores in this latest blog. 

Where are we now?


At last year’s ACOSVO conference, 98% of those polled said there had been positives for their organisation in working from home.  28% said their charity was looking at moving to different premises to reduce costs.  86% said their organisation would change working practices post-pandemic to include more flexibility. 


In reflecting on where we are now, and what lies ahead, there are a huge variety of views.  As such, this blog reflects my own perspectives and shares some of the themes I see emerging for those charities who have some kind of premises, be that rented or owned, noting that many charities do not have an office space at all.  For those that do, this summer is likely to herald a new phase of office and meeting protocols, desk-booking processes and more. 


The office – what is it good for?


Since most offices have been closed for over a year now, with charities continuing to operate and staff based at home, it’s essential to ask a simple question – what is an office for?  What is it good for?  What do people need that is physically located in a place other than their home?   Initially, I missed access to a colour printer, yet over time I’ve become accustomed to living without printed material, so perhaps I have been weaned off printing.  Whatever it was that filled my allocated drawer at work clearly was not essential at all, as I have not missed any item which was stored there these last 12 months. 


What kind of space do you need, and where?


There’s already evidence of office space being remodelled as the role of the office is reimagined as a flexible hub.  One new office fit-out I looked at included a café-style lounge area for informal catch-ups, as well as some sound-proofed rooms kitted out with all the lighting, screens and technology needed for hosting webinars and conferences.  While this was for a private sector firm, some charities might adopt similar practices, if they have the means to do so – a big if.  


Given the many empty premises in town centres, there could however be some really interesting new spaces in new places to emerge in the years ahead, which could also change the commuting picture. The opposite of ‘working from home’ is not necessarily ‘going back to the office’. This is where remote working hubs become a possibility, where a quiet working space is required that doesn’t involve spending time or money on an unpleasant commute to a city centre head office.  Last year, I had a zoom with someone who was in their local pub, which had opened as a remote working hub/café during the time it wasn’t in use a licensed premises in lockdown.  It will be fascinating to watch how this middle space emerges.  Charities who are landlords will find both threats and opportunities here.


Working 9 to 5?


Some people have found working from home involves longer hours, as the distinction between home life and work life becomes too blurred with the inability to ‘switch-off’.  Others have not experienced this issue, but what if your home situation is really not conducive to remote working?  There are various reasons why some people are really keen to avoid working from home.  Poor Wi-Fi is one issue. Living alone may also mean someone would prefer the company of others.  Equally, it may be that the noise and distraction caused by those in your household, be that other flatmates or a youngster who is not yet at school, prompt you to want to work elsewhere. 


Aside from these home factors, there are other reasons why being in an office could be helpful . If you’re new into a role, going through an induction process, receiving training and support, these all point to situations where being in an office with others might be better than remote working.


Finally, you may find some types of work are more usefully done when in the same room as others.  Group-generated creative or change work may fall into this category.  Personally, I’ve found 1-2-1 creative conversations work well in a virtual space, but the larger the number, the more need some may feel to be physically in the same place. 


As a charity CEO, if you are looking at how to frame your new protocols for office use and desk-booking,these are all considerations.  Limits on the occupancy levels of offices are likely for some time ahead, which means a framework for prioritisation and scheduling will be needed. 


The worst of both worlds


Another area to cover in protocols relates to blended meetings, where some meeting participants are in an office and some are remote.  I’m not alone in remembering how poor blended meetings were in the past. Those whose voices could only be heard via a spider phone in the room were unable to participate and influence in the same way as those physically present. Some organisations have already decided that virtual team meetings will remain, in order to equalise the experience for all participants regardless of location


A second aspect linked to equity is whether to set parameters around a ‘normal’ blend or range of days for remote and in-office working, in order to create opportunities for everyone to be in the office at some point.  The rationale here addresses an argument that says – those who are present in the office are more likely to be visible to senior management and are more likely to be promoted.  Of course, if the CEO and senior management team are also working flexibly, this view has far less weight, but if old poor habits of presenteeism re-emerge, then the informal networks associated with presenteeism will drift back too.  CEOs have a great deal of influence over the culture and ‘tone from the top’.  If the CEO goes back to being in the office five days a week, what might the consequences be for your staff and organisation as a whole? 


Flexible working also brings with it a new risk of people working in open plan offices and multiple (different) Teams/Zoom calls underway at once – can you imagine the noise, the challenge to concentrate and the lack of privacy?  It’s one thing when the unexpected meeting visitor is someone’s pet or toddler.  It’s quite another to be unsure if your virtual meeting is being overheard by colleagues of the person you are speaking to.  If I were a designer, I’d be launching some kind of mini-cubicle to slide shut around a desk to create a sound-proof environment.  If my nightmare vision becomes a reality, I will revert to my initial questions – what’s the office for and what kind of space do you need?  If you simply return to an office without making any layout/set-up changes, that could simply introduce new problems.  


Mind your wellbeing and your carbon footprint


For me, working from home brings both positive and negative outcomes for my wellbeing.  The negative is shown by my step-counter, which shows a shockingly low number of steps on those days I am too sedentary; walk to the kettle, the fridge, and back to the kitchen table.  I now realise the ‘invisible exercise’ I used to get simply walking from place to place, from train station to destination. The prospect of ‘walk and talk’ meetings is one I look forward to – a win-win for wellbeing and COVID risk assessment?  On the upside, the lack of business travel/commute brings particular benefits in warm weather, when it’s possible to get out immediately after work and enjoy a longer warm evening outside.  From a Scottish perspective when warm evenings are not to be taken for granted, this matters.


The last year will also have altered our personal and organisational carbon footprints in various ways.  Fewer flights and car journeys will have reduced our impact on the environment.  If your charity previously monitored its environmental impact looking at office-based activities, this will have become more difficult to track given remote working practices.  In this regard, there are online calculators which can be used to estimate your personal carbon footprint.  As Greta Thunberg said recently however, “the pandemic proves that the climate crisis has never once been treated as a crisis.”  Decisions your charity makes about how it operates in future will contribute to whether enough is being done, or not, to respond to the climate emergency.   


Navigate carefully, listen and evolve


As was called out in the CEO Check-in, there are dynamics of control at play in what lies ahead.  When the office was a normal place to work, an employee had less control over their work environment, and the cost and inconvenience of commuting simply had to be borne.  During the last year, many people have managed to save money by not commuting and have had hours of their personal time returned to them, neither of which they want to give up.  For charities who also want to be seen as good employers, there is much to weigh up here.