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Teleworking in Troubled Times


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Coast to coast, and around the globe, offices have emptied out as businesses implement work-from-home policies meant to help curb the spread of coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19). The trend has me wondering: How might in-office work and workplaces change in the wake of all this virtual work?
To help me sort out answers to such a question, I turned to Melissa Marsh, founder and executive director of PLASTARC, a social research, workplace innovation, and real estate strategy firm that explores the performance of workplaces based on their ability to deliver on human experience. Marsh, who is also senior managing director - occupant experience for Savills, a global real estate services provider, gave me lots to consider, starting with the point that what’s happening today is really a continuation of what we’ve seen since the 2008 recession with people’s exposure to different ways of working.
As a New Yorker, Marsh pointed to Hurricane Sandy in 2012 as an example of a moment that triggered a change in thinking about the workplace. “Corporates had to think differently about how they provide workplace and work tools to people, and people had to work from libraries or their homes or schools or municipal buildings, or a coffee shop, etc.,” she said.
When folks return to traditional offices after working in cafes and other locations, they often push for the creation of co-working and diverse office environments that have a mix of individual workspaces, meeting rooms, and lounge areas, Marsh said. “People bringing their positive out-of-office experiences to the workplace is in large part what we've seen playing out as the workplace trends of the last few years,” she added.
Such is the case, as well, with the “resimercial” trend of creating soft-feeling office environments and reducing the industrial workstation esthetic stems, Marsh said. This trend stems, at least in part, from people’s desire to work in more comfortable home-like settings. The work-from-home experiences thrust upon people today will likely continue fueling creation of resimercial spaces, Marsh said.
Of course, working from a coffee shop or other public place isn’t an option with COVID-19 on the loose and social distancing the new normal. With today’s situation, working from home means just that… working from within your home, or maybe your backyard or garage, Marsh said. “And there are maybe a couple of things that are going to come of that,” she added.
Technology preparedness is one. “Many organizations still have maybe a somewhat negative or disparaging perspective on telework or work-from-anywhere practices. They still tend to think of being seen as the best way to manage people,” Marsh said. With people shifting to remote work en masse, organizations stand to learn a lot about how best to communicate.
“Hopefully,” Marsh added, “they'll take some time to experiment and have lots more exposure.”
In addition, today’s remote work mandate will have a leveling effect — it’s no longer managers and directors sitting in their offices and workers out in the field, but everybody is separated, Marsh pointed out. This should make the lessons learned and takeaways quite different than usual, and from that, she noted, “what I might hope is that people become more thoughtful about what are the things that are desirable and valuable to do when we come together collectively and are co-located in offices, and what are the things from the work-from-anywhere environment that support or facilitate maybe even better than offices accommodate for certain functions.”
This period of working from home should help strengthen teleworking skills, which Marsh said she considers core for any business. And therein is the silver lining: “If people practice their teleworking skills … they’ll actually be better workers in any environment — and when they get back to the physical office.”