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03.06.2020 |

Home alone in the office

The coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a home working revolution. But it’s too early to speak of the death of the office. Humans are social beings who need to work in offices and communicate in person. We can’t work alone at home forever. After the lockdown we now have to find the right balance.

Happy are those who can work at home – really work – during the coronavirus crisis. I’m not one of them. I like to be able to concentrate and work in peace and quiet. With school-age kids running around that’s a physical impossibility. I’ve tried, so I know what I’m talking about.

And I’m certainly not the only one with the same problem. In a Link survey in April, 58 per cent of Swiss people said they were working from home. That’s twice as many as the previous month. How can they concentrate? Are they as productive at home as in the office, or do they get distracted? It would be interesting to know how productivity has fared in flats repurposed into offices.

It’s not certain to what extent we’ll be working from home in a few years’ time. It’s still too early to make predictions. The pandemic could end up driving new concepts of space that enable people to manage their work and family better under one roof. But we’re not there yet.

Taking refuge in the office

I’m fortunate to be able to decide myself where I work. Between all the conference calls, cooking and answering my kids’ questions at home, it’s liberating to be able to take refuge in the office. It’s only a 15-minute walk from my home. There – always maintaining the appropriate social distance – I get to enjoy the calm of the parallel universe of the office. It’s wonderful. Sometimes. The thing is, in the last few weeks I’ve often been the only person in the office for days at a time. At some point, that got to be too much for a lonesome PR consultant in an open-plan office.

Online encounters with clients and colleagues just about kept me going as a social, working being. At first, thanks to Zoom, I enjoyed getting to see how my colleagues lived. But from the third week of the lockdown, I started to find these video calls, where the heads of my business partners and co-workers are closer than in any real-life meeting, increasingly bleak. I started pining for encounters with people in the flesh.

What I didn’t knead to see
When things are all on screen, interpersonal communication suffers. I like to be able to gauge the facial expressions, posture and pitch of voice of the person I’m communicating with. It gives me pointers that help me assess the situation correctly. Collaboration is based on mutual trust, and not just in the communications industry. No video meeting can reproduce the effect of that chemistry between people. Instead, completely irrelevant images from our virtual meetings stay stuck in my brain. For example, in one Zoom meeting, the partner of one of the dozen people attending was kneading dough in the background. Okay, so there could have been much more absurd things going on in the background, but don’t ask me what was said in the meeting. I can’t remember. But what I can recall, any time I like, is the sight of that person kneading bread.

The office is not yet dead

Many people have had their daily working routine turned upside-down and have had to get used to new ways of working. What the pandemic has shown us is that working from home is manageable in most businesses. At the moment, all our employees here at open up can decide for themselves whether they want to work in the office or from home. We’re aiming for a normal situation, with people working at least three days a week in the office, by the beginning of July. Naturally I’ll be spending most of my time in the office – although two half-days a week I’ll be working from home, as I have been up to now.

With the easing of the lockdown, a modicum of normality has returned. But some things are here to stay. Virtual meetings, where they weren’t already used before the pandemic, will be a matter of course in the new normal. At the same time, people will value personal exchange with customers, business partners and colleagues more highly.

Today there were three of us at the office. I’m looking forward to soon being able to brainstorm and get inspired with more co-workers over coffee in the kitchen or on the balcony. And after weeks of lockdown I’ll be encouraging clients to drop by again for a real, in-the-flesh encounter.

 

Author
Every time he bakes a loaf, Philippe Welti can’t help thinking about the man in the Zoom meeting.