Yesterday the Prime Minister announced that hospitality venues and tourism facilities in England can reopen from the oddly Trumpian 4th July. Social distancing rules will also be eased, from two metres to a racy “one metre plus” which seems to mean arm’s-length with small print.

There will remain some brain-teasing regulations around inter-household mixing but, for now, we are emerging from our lengthy lockdown and I can get a haircut. Already booked in fact!

What now? No one knows. Too many moving parts. Where the word ‘unprecedented’ once lay we now find the phrase ‘new normal’, the latest touchstone of media interviewees. It is a comforting signpost, perhaps, but rather meaningless as what is new and what might become normal change by the day and differ dramatically by individual and nation. If ‘new normal’ is a destination, we are a long way from finding it and clueless about an ETA. Personally, I find any image of the future beyond a couple of weeks to be blurry at best. 

There does seem to be some clarity emerging, however, in the implications of COVID-19 for the workplace (or should I say workspace?). As someone who consults with businesses, I am fascinated by where the current enforced behaviours lead and by what will eventually constitute best practice.  

Most obviously, a combination of necessity and advances in video conferencing technology has ended the tyranny of the office. While some jobs will always require physical labour at a central location, many typically ‘white-collar’ occupations, where this is not the case, have borne the express or implied obligation to present ‘at work’ regardless of need.

No longer. To quote from an article that appeared in The Week on 20th June: “In a few short months, the office era – that period when working in an office was the default setting for the professional class – has died”.

The benefits of this shift for the employee appear to be increased productivity (less commuting, fewer interruptions), greater flexibility (all people work differently) and enhanced wellbeing (healthier lifestyle, better work-life balance).

Also, at least for a while, offices will not be the places they were, bedevilled by checks and systems required to combat the risk of virus transmission.

For employers, to the upside of a more motivated workforce can be added the financial savings from not running fully occupied premises and from, in theory, being able to hire remote employees from anywhere in the world. 

There are watchouts with this transition to working from home (WFH), however, accompanied by some craving, following weeks of deprivation, for a dose of office vibe.

It is true that the grip of the daily commute has loosened in recent years as the first generation of digital natives has kicked against the old ways. In addition, the fashion for open-plan/hot desking has seen, and to some extent encouraged, behaviours (for example, wearing headphones, sending emails rather than face-to-face interaction) that have further reduced the point of colleagues being together in the same place.  

We do need to take care here, though. Productivity since March may have improved but is this real or simply work hour creep, another manifestation of the always-on culture, fostering a grazing instinct towards work that can maintain stress hormones at persistently high levels? And then there is the growing interest in software that monitors what employees are actually doing at home! 

The magic that happens when human beings mingle cannot be ignored either. Successful businesses thrive on more than Zoom calls and solitary computer work. What about the flexible collaboration upon which the knowledge economy relies? Who does not miss the deeper, often non-verbal communication that seeing co-workers in person permits?

Lest we forget, too, for many younger people working remotely, there is the double whammy of less space at home and more to learn at work, compared to the older cohort.

Since lockdown, everyone who has not needed to be in the office has experienced some benefits from working at home. These will not, I am sure, be sacrificed as the world tentatively re-opens for business. Employees will now demand greater autonomy to choose how, where and when they work best.

Important collective and creative human capabilities, however, only truly flourish in the community that is the workplace. These must not be sacrificed either.

The answer is a blended model, part in the office, part WFH, built upon shared employer and employee interests – more fluid, less rigid, transforming familiar working practices.

The post COVID-19 working week may represent the most welcome hybrid yet, a genuine cause for optimism, propelling us all beyond a ‘new normal’ towards a ‘better normal’.