Friday On My Mind – The New Workplace!

By Michael Barker

Well, hello, fellow planet-dwellers.

This column and its writer are sort of coming out of hibernation.

Not for the first time.

And I know we’re not alone.

There was a point, after the initial covid restrictions – shutting down of the State, limits on gatherings, control of intra-State movements, etc – were removed, that one felt ‘over it’, that, like after a bad hangover, you had recovered and could do whatever you normally do in all the usual ways.

But it didn’t last long, did it? The rest of the world was only getting started. Those like India and Brazil plainly felt left out and had to catch up. And the USA felt they had to stay ahead of them all. And then Victoria, with its … whatever the opposite of quarantine is.

It seems to me that the only way I can deal with the current state of affairs is to resume life fully, accepting, at the same time, that it will never actually be the same again in my lifetime. Wow, such a dramatic statement, ‘in my lifetime’!

I’ve found predictive statements like this to be very useful instruments. Mostly because my predictions rarely come true. So if I make them, there’s a good chance that, if not the opposite, then something else quite different to it, will occur.

But assuming I’m right, what does it mean to say things will never be the same again in my lifetime?

Well, first, to clear up the ‘lifetime’ bit. I’m talking, say, 20 years. The time it’ll take for Fremantle’s Dockers to snare their first Premiership. (That’s not so much a prediction as a confident statement of fact – that is, they will take a flag sometime in the next 20 years – just mark my words!) So, 20 years – a little while, but not a long time – well, not if you’re already three score years and 10, or more!

Now, in this lifetime period, I have a sneaking suspicion, despite the best efforts of governments to request/require the old workforce to resume their old spaces at their old workplaces, there is going to be a wholesale rethinking of, not so much how we work (but that too), as where we work. This will be less an issue for people involved in manufacturing things and working in industrial type settings. Panel beaters can’t really do it from home, can they?

Change is afoot in so many sectors of our economy just now. We are hearing daily, for example, about how supply chains are likely to change fundamentally across the planet in response to the new patterns of purchasing online just about everything imaginable. Once you have a trusted organic food supplier, for example, why would you bother to expend time visiting a bricks and mortar store to place your order? Just do it by phone, video or online and get them to deliver. No need to attend in person. Ditto clothing? Ditto going to the Apple Store. Ditto visiting large shopping centres? Ditto buying a car? Ditto sitting on a company board or the Fremantle council. And so on.

The best reason for going, occasionally, to the bricks and mortar places to get things and services is obviously the social experience, and exercise perhaps, and to see what’s happening in one’s neighbourhood.

(At this point I’ve started wondering about the grammatical efficacy of switching from ‘one’, to ‘you’, and to ‘I’. Perhaps this indicates an admirable flexibility on my part that will equip one well in an ever-changing world.)

When you add to the covid equation the realisation that, even if covid vaccines are discovered sometime soon they will not of themselves prevent the continued spread of covid, there will remain an ever-present need to live one’s life in a more cautious way for years to come – right through my lifetime, I expect.

This may mean thinking twice about where I eat, shop, walk, see movies, holiday, who I visit etc etc. All a bit gloomy. However, these are exactly the sorts of questions that concentrate your mind when your lifetime is limited to 20 years!

But I digress. Back to the workplace. Here I will make a prediction that I think is absolutely right! And will be proved so!! Fighting words!!! (Three exclamation marks, just to confirm it!!!! Four.)

I can’t help but think we will, collectively, that is to say, overall, with some exceptions, henceforth work differently when it comes to where we work. I’m not referring just to those whose offices and workplaces have been far from home in bricks and mortar structures, and in steel and glass office towers, and in tilt-up concrete and tin warehouses spread around our cities, I’m talking about us all. As I suggested at the opening, people who make and work physically on things probably fall into a different category, but even so how they work is also likely to change.

One may accept the contention that we humans, well, most of us anyway, are social, gregarious folk who, mostly, like to interact with others. And so, for many of us, leaving home daily to attend an external workplace may continue to be an unqualified good thing. Especially if we live alone. Or even if we live with others!

And one may also accept that in some callings, MPs perhaps, and certainly panel beaters,the need to be physically in the external workplace to engage in optimal decision-making processes or to do the work might itself be optimal. Or even necessary. But – none of that can deny a big change to the old normal has been introduced by covid.

I am beginning to sense a radical and irreversible reversing of the order we have heretofore considered natural when it comes to workplaces. We used to use the technology of virtual/video meetings and communications as a mere adjunct to real/in person meetings and interactions in workplaces external to our home ones. We accepted the value of the virtual, and adopted it, but mainly when the real was impossible or seriously inconvenient. Courts, as an example, would allow witnesses to give evidence by video at a trial, rather than attend in person, where they were overseas or interstate and the costs of attending in person outweighed the perceived benefits of doing so.

But now I sense that we, so many of us, have begun to question the assumption implicit in that old way of thinking. Why shouldn’t we see meeting virtually from a home office as the standard, supplemented by the real meeting in an external workplace when the real meeting is unarguably necessary?

And there is so much to be gained from this transformation. For a start, if we turn the old business assumption on its head, businesses will be able to revise their budgets drastically downwards, and workers in most cases will be able to revise theirs upwards. The old needs for large spaces and expensive travel, parking etc, respectively, will go out the window.

Using Courts again as an example, many Courts have recently regularly been holding hearings by video. This saves lawyers wasting their time and their client’s money in travelling to and from and standing around idly in a Court waiting for their case to be called. Now the lawyers can attend from their office, when required, whether at home or in a steel and glass office tower, saving time and money. Which equals efficiency. Judges can do the same. And they too can work remotely. And why not?

It may be accepted that businesses of all types will continue to need a formal workplace, external to the home one, to meet clients and customers and conduct formal meetings from time to time. And it goes without saying that businesses engaged in manufacturing won’t usually be amenable to a home workplace. But will the non-manufacturing workplaces need the same sorts of offices they currently rent if their people are not there as often as they used to be? Perhaps all they will need in the future are rooms to meet in as required, from time to time, spaces which can be shared with others when not in use, and much closer to their home offices.

Medicos, for example, have suddenly been doing the formerly unthinkable – consulting over the phone and by video. And why not? Will the GP really need a large set of consulting rooms in the future? Will not shared spaces suffice, to be used only if a follow-up personal exam is required after the virtual exam?

Does your business or personal accountant need big spaces any longer? Can they work from home mainly, backed up by real interactions as required? Many already do. And why not?

And so on and so on, for so many other sectors of our economy.

Sure, personal bonding and water-cooler discussions are important, especially it would seem for people in advertising, but does anybody (apart perhaps from the advertising industry) really require their employees to be full-time attendees in an office external to their home office any more?

One doubts it.

And so do I!

Over to you!