Whilst we as an organisation were able to prepare for the official announcement of lockdown (we left our office a week ahead of the Prime Minister’s official statement), our preparations to vacate our office hampered efforts to continue our regular work. However, within a short period of time, PMI’s permanent staff were equipped with recently-purchased laptops and were continuing their work from home. What was at first an unfamiliar and uncomfortable working environment has, over a period of months, evolved into a new workplace orthodoxy. It has proved typical of the experience of many organisations and for PMI – and others – has become the new normal.
Initially, working from home presents some difficulties. It is important to find somewhere to set up workplace equipment which is comfortable and free from interruption, and for many this has proved a challenge. Effective contact with workplace computer servers has meant that effective broadband is now essential rather than a luxury.
Workplace meetings have changed. Whereas in the past enormous effort would be made to ensure that people could travel significant distances to meet physically in a traditional meeting room, the demands of lockdown have made organisations look to virtual alternatives via services such as Teams or Zoom. Specifically within the context of pensions, this has seen the traditional trustee meeting undergo thorough transformation. Board packs are now distributed electronically and the need for wet signatures has been successfully challenged as electronic alternatives have emerged. However, what is particularly significant is the realisation that change imposed by circumstances has resulted in what is not a temporary fix but a permanent transformation. Adapting to the demands of the COVID emergency has led to the adoption of practices that are less costly, more secure and more efficient.
Another fundamental change will be organisations’ reliance on office space. Together with its payroll, rent is one of the greatest costs to an employer, and the experience of lockdown has led many organisations to question its requirement for office space. PMI’s own experience of lockdown may prove typical: our lease at Tower 42 expired shortly after staff left the building. The experience of having colleagues work effectively and productively from home has led to a significant re-evaluation of office space requirements. Post COVID, PMI’s new office requirements are likely to be significantly smaller (and cheaper) than has been the case in the past. This is surely to be true of other organisations as well. At any given time, it seems likely that organisations will have many employees working remotely with maybe a handful of colleagues working in a traditional office environment, and only when circumstances require it.
Technology has also challenged the traditional concept of where work is based. Homeworkers are no longer tied rigidly to an office location as they have in the past, and can, in theory, be based anywhere in the world as long as they are able to interact effectively with colleagues. One of the current PMI team is based in Vienna, for example. As part of 2020’s Pens Tech and Admin Summit, I chaired a discussion with Charles Cotton of CIPD and Geraldine Brassett of Capita. They made the point that employers are no longer constrained by geographical location when recruiting staff and that this is likely to have a significant impact on regional remuneration trends.
However, the new workplace environment is not without its drawbacks. Managers need to be wary of the impact that isolation can have on colleagues. It can be difficult to manage quality and consistency with a team based in diverse locations. It is also difficult to monitor the welfare of colleagues who rarely meet physically, and the recruitment and training of new employees can be difficult when staff never meet in person. Traditional workplace rituals, such as the office Christmas dinner, are impossible to maintain under current conditions, and this is likely to have a detrimental impact on staff morale. We should not lose sight of the fact that by nature humans are sociable beings, and that the intimacy of traditional office life is something that will be greatly missed.
It is truly the case that necessity is the mother of invention, and that drastic steps taken to counter the impact of a serious pandemic have resulted in new workplace practices which will surely become permanent.
The traditional workplace environment is gone, and has been replaced by a virtual workplace which could see colleagues based in diverse locations yet able to co-operate as effectively as ever. The massive reduction in commuting and reduced consumption of energy is likely to reduce the West’s carbon footprint too. Whilst some may retain a sentimental attachment to the past, it is surely the case that the pandemic has brought about a revolution in workplace practices. We are already operating in the new normal.
This article was featured in Pensions Aspects magazine January edition.
Last update: 27 January 2021