Words by Tom Smith
It’s better to know what you don’t know than to rush into making decisions, and it’s clear that there will be no single answer to the workplace after COVID-19. The solution will be different for every organization, and encompass many elements — from healthier environments to transportation, to productivity and emotional wellbeing.
At WSP, we have a deep understanding of workplace, so we’re well placed to help our clients to navigate to that better normal as a partner and a trusted advisor. With 50,000 employees around the world, we have also been thinking hard about our own response. Culture is important for any organization, but particularly for professional services firms. Having the best people, the best thinking and the best ideas is our competitive advantage — and when your mission is to enhance communities through great buildings and infrastructure, there’s no substitute for being there physically.
Many organisations have been able to work from home very successfully during the pandemic. This is partly because everyone has buckled down in a crisis, but it’s also because we’ve accumulated a lot of social and cultural capital. If this situation was to continue for years rather than months, how much of that capital would be left? For those of us who have already had the opportunity to develop great networks, working from home has been a revelation. But you can’t build a career that way. Emerging professionals need to be mentored, and to have face-to-face discussions with colleagues and clients. It’s easy to collaborate virtually with people you know, but how do you forge new relationships and win work in a virtual world? Ultimately, offices will always be part of the DNA of businesses because we need to go to the office to interact, to socialize, to collaborate and innovate, to learn.
Perhaps we should look at it from a different angle. From now on, we’re going to have a more distributed workforce. There will be people working from home, from the office and from clients’ offices, people working in different geographies and in the cloud, and people working different shifts to fit around their family commitments or lifestyle. So the real challenge for any organization is to provide the right environment and the tools to support that distributed workforce to be productive and achieve the right work-life balance.
There are positives to working from home, but the flipside is that it can feel as if you’re sleeping in the office. That’s not good for our health and it’s not sustainable for the long term, so we need to find better ways of making a demarcation between our home and work lives. Next in this series, WSP will be looking at how healthcare can respond to the lessons from COVID-19. The pandemic has emphasized that health begins not in the hospital but at home — in the places where we live and work, and in cities that nurture, nourish and sustain. The way we organize and accommodate work is crucial to our wellbeing, but it has wider implications too. What if instead of working from home, I decided to walk to a flexible office space on my local high street? What if there was a whole new community of people all walking or cycling in, sharing the same office space, buying coffee or having a pint in the evening? Wouldn’t that be a great way to revitalize our town centres?
COVID-19 is forcing us to rethink our built environment in many ways, and it presents us with a unique opportunity. If we can create a better normal workplace, we will be one step closer to a better normal world.
Tom Smith is global director, property & buildings at WSP