With March marking a year since many people swapped their office desks for back bedrooms and kitchen tables amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Arlen Pettitt, North East England Chamber of Commerce knowledge development manager, looks at the changes many organisations and employees have gone through, and sees great potential to emerge from the health crisis with a more robust and productive approach

It’s been a year now since I visited our office or took a face- to-face meeting, but personally (and I hope my colleagues would agree) I feel the past year has been an incredibly productive one.

Like many organisations, the Chamber has massively changed how it works and what it offers as a result of the pandemic – in our case shifting to almost complete remote working (bar a few of our international trade specialists) and taking the cornerstones of our offer, including how we make connections and our events programme, into the virtual world.

For us, again in common with many others, it has been an acceleration down a road we were already on.

The question is not when do we go back to how things were before, but how do we keep moving forward while reintegrating the things we can’t replicate?

Every business has been juggling with some form of that, and while the focus of a lot of future of the workplace chatter over the past year has been on offices or scenarios where people are able to work from home, the same is true of all workplaces.

As the pandemic unfolded, businesses in sectors with job roles where you cannot work from home – be that manufacturing, engineering, chemicals, construction or whatever – took stock quickly and often only closed their sites very briefly to make changes to layouts and install safety measures before getting right back to work.

What they’ve then done is built on that initial approach iteratively, getting a little safer and little more efficient each time until they arrive at something which fulfilled all the criteria.

All of us who’ve had our main places of work closed for the majority of the past twelve months will soon have to do the same.

We’ve recently published a report into the future of the workplace – looking mostly at offices – with contributions from experts from the Chamber membership sharing their insights and making predictions for the next few years.

One thing that came up again and again was the importance of designing your workplace in collaboration with your team.

Just as employers have realised that remote working and greater flexibility is possible and can even boost productivity, so too have employees realised they can have different requirements and expectations from working life too.

In order to attract and retain the best talent, businesses are going to have to adapt to that.

But then again, they’re used to doing that; flexibility over location and working day will join office setting, facilities and perks as a way in which businesses differentiate themselves to potential candidates.

Some have made big moves already to adjust their physical footprint, like Chamber Partners Womble Bond Dickinson, which is moving from its Quayside home to a new location on Newcastle Helix.

So too has Northern Gas and Power, which is moving a stone’s throw from its current Gateshead riverside location at Baltic Place, to new offices in the Riga Building, based on the Baltic Quarter development.

In each case, consideration has been taken for how their teams will be using this new space – with less of a focus on fixed desk 9-5 working and more on emphasising collaboration and the social and wellbeing aspects of working life.

The wellbeing point is an important one, and it’s crucial to recognise that this pandemic has had an uneven impact.

Data from the ONS, among others, shows that those of us able to work at home are the lucky ones, in terms of risk, as are white people compared to BAME Britons, and that women have disproportionately taken on additional caring responsibilities.

Even within the bubble of my own Microsoft Teams window, I can see how lucky my home working situation is compared to some of my colleagues – I have a dedicated desk; I can move to a different room for a change of scene and work just as comfortably; I have a garden.

Many businesses I’ve spoken to have expressed worry about the isolating impact home working has on younger staff members in particular – those trapped in bedrooms or perched on dining tables in small flats, shared houses or their parents’ homes.

Beyond the immediate impacts, we’ve also heard concerns about career progression and team culture, without the level playing field and shared experience of the office.

None of this is insurmountable, but all of it is worthy of our time and attention, and for every barrier or inequality we encounter and deal with now, there are others eased by greater flexibility and the possibility of remote working.

There’s no reason why we can’t come out of this crisis with a more robust, resilient and productive approach to work.