Like many other workers, Salim Hashmi lives in a compact studio flat in the heart of London, where the bedroom doubles as the kitchen in a few dozen square metres – not that welcoming an environment, it would seem, for home working.
Yet even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Hashmi, who works as a teaching fellow at a central London university, was a keen remote worker. The academic’s secret to successful telecommuting? He has an office away from the office.
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For many of us who are nearing the end of three months working from cramped flats, potentially with no garden, sometimes complete with noisy young children, the idea might sound attractive.
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“Whenever I would work from home before COVID,” Hashmi tells ZDNet, “I would start my day as if I was going to work, and then instead of getting onto the tube, I’d go down to the co-working space with my laptop and my coffee, and work there until lunchtime.”
When his stomach would start rumbling, he would take the lift back up to his studio, make some food, and do some more work there. “But I’d go back down if I wasn’t working productively enough in my own flat,” adds Hashmi. “To have this workspace was really beneficial, because otherwise you’re always working in your bedroom-kitchen area.”
Hashmi lives in a high-rise building managed by real estate company Uncle, which also owns a few other residences in central London, as well as in Manchester. At the heart of Uncle’s business model is the concept of a “vertical neighborhood”: the company offers apartments to rent, but the buildings also include gyms, cafes, co-working spaces, and on-site resident managers who are responsible for fostering a sense of community across the location.
Speaking at the CogX conference 2020, the company’s CEO Ryan Prince explained that he was increasingly seeing his residents speak of having “co-workers from home”. Relationships similar to workplace colleagues emerged, said Prince, as residents spent time both living and working next to their neighbors.
Because of the pandemic, Uncle’s co-working spaces have had to temporarily close down. “But as soon as they re-open, I will go straight down there, and probably a lot more than before,” says Hashmi.
“This is mostly just because the ergonomics of working in my studio aren’t very good,” he adds. “Whereas all the times I’ve worked in the co-working space, I’ve never felt physically discomforted. There’s a variety in how you can sit, or change spaces.”
Having a dedicated space acting as an alternative to home and the office seems a fitting concept in current times. Government guidelines are staying clear of any encouragement to return to the office, and many workers will now have fully embraced their telecommuting routines. That is not to say, however, that every aspect of remote work is thrilling.
Sure, you may have requested the appropriate lumbar cushion, keyboard or monitor from your employer to help with your back pain; or carefully stuck to expert tips to stay healthy, happy and productive, even during a global pandemic.
It remains that the global work-from-home experiment was not only an overnight exercise for businesses, but also for their staff, who often found that their home setting wasn’t exactly up to the challenge.
Recent research from Uswitch conducted in the UK, in fact, showed that almost half of respondents reported working at the dinner table. A whole 25% admitted to doing their job from bed. What’s more, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they had had issues with their broadband or mobile signal.
Having to make-do with stiff kitchen chairs and a temperamental internet connection might have been an acceptable last resort as the COVID-19 crisis suddenly locked the office doors. But now it has become widely accepted that remote working is here to stay, even in a post-coronavirus world. And as employees start spending a few more days at home every week, it is not only office layouts that are going to change – but also the way we organize our homes.
In the UK, a strong 75% of employees have reported not wanting to go back into the office full-time. Of course, that does not spell the end of the workplace: the vast majority of employees still miss the buzz and communication enabled by office life. Rather than disappear, the workplace is looking set to evolve into a space built for a different purpose – namely, to collaborate and meet with co-workers, instead of sitting at a desk from nine to five.
But employees will want more flexibility in the way they work, and potentially only want to come into the office a few times a week. And big tech companies are prepared to give their staff what they want: Twitter, for one, has already announced that it is giving workers the choice to stick with remote working permanently, even after offices are fully re-opened.
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The incentive, from an employer’s perspective, is easy to see. Phil Flaxton, the chief executive of non-profit organization Work Wise UK, and a strong advocate of smart working, tells ZDNet: “A number of corporates right now are looking at this and wondering if they actually need to house all of their employees. There are effectively significant cost-savings that could be achieved in down-sizing.”
With a portion of employees at home most of the time, gone are the costs of rent for huge office space – as well as the free cupcakes, exercise classes or monthly socials. Instead, it might be up to employees to find similar productivity-boosting environments, and in their own homes.
As a result, the core functions of houses and flats – sleeping, cooking, socializing – might expand to now include working. Urban planning company Prior+Partners, in a prospectus on designing for a post-pandemic life, asks whether our living spaces should become more multifunctional. Our interiors, says the paper, should be more flexible to accommodate different uses, including office use.
According to Flaxton, we could see a work-from-home space becoming a pre-requisite for future residential buildings. “It might become the norm for housing developers to design homes where the technology for home working is built into the infrastructure of the property,” he says.
“Homes would come with a designated area that has got Wi-Fi built-in, for example. The day you move in, you could just sit down with your laptop, switch it on, and go,” he continues.
To an extent, the concept of a hybrid space, mixing work and play environments in a way that allows a healthy dose of both, is what Uncle’s “vertical neighborhoods” already offer. In the same central London building as Salim Hashmi, lives Jessica Popplewell, who shares a studio flat with her partner; like Hashmi, she jokes that her mother’s first visit to the apartment came with the comment that “our bed is essentially in the kitchen”.
In Yorkshire, where she used to live, explains Popplewell, the house came with a terrace, and it was always possible to find a peaceful space to work. Not so much in London.
“The shared space downstairs is important, because it’s a city-friendly version of that privilege of space I had in Yorkshire,” she tells ZDNet. “There’s a sense of productivity in a shared space that I don’t always have in my flat.”
Uncle’s residential buildings come with a host of services that are strongly reminiscent of your typical millennial office, ranging from gyms to buffet-style canteen through to meditation and chill-out studio spaces. It’s not just about the amenities, however: the residential team also put on social events throughout the year, often hosted in the co-working space, to build up the community.
One of Hashmi’s best memories in the residence, in fact, was the Christmas party organized a few weeks after he moved in, complete with the free food and wine that punctuate many offices’ Thursday evenings around that time of the year.
The company’s CEO Ryan Prince tells ZDNet that in another one of Uncle’s buildings, the residents’ favorite activity is to organize Thursday night quizzes – another age-old staple of after-work office life.
“Before, we were not around our places of living all day,” says Prince. “But now, if people are going to be home two or three days a week, they’re going to meet another universe of people they wouldn’t have otherwise met.”
Prince is confident that the model’s appeal will only increase in the future. About a quarter of Uncle’s tenants at the moment are gig economy workers, who actively wanted a co-working space in the building. “But now, every business large and small will be working from home. The number of people who might want that has expanded,” says the company’s CEO.
Of course, moving into a brand-new apartment in a high-rise building, or fitting a small flat with an extra room for working, might not be on the cards for everyone. But that’s no reason to think that everybody else will have to stick with makeshift home offices, even as remote working becomes a norm.
Changes might also happen outside of immediate living spaces – at the level of local facilities, for example – to accommodate workers’ new needs. City planners, in fact, are already anticipating the migration out of the office and towards residential areas.
Tom Venables, planning director at Prior+Partner, says that the trend is already being given centre-stage when planning for new communities. According to Venables, planners are increasingly imagining scenarios where people live further out and commute occasionally, and either have a better home office set up or the ability to go to a local community space.
“It is also applicable to existing smaller centres in London,” says Venables. “For example, I live in West Norwood in zone three, and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to working in the office in central London five days a week again. But I could totally imagine using a community space for meetings.”
He gives the example of his local library, which was recently made-over in a multi-million pound joint venture. Equally, Venables predicts a big rise in “membership offices” – a similar concept to gym memberships, but to hot-desk in nearby dedicated facilities.
Memberships, however, come at a cost – and where there is a cost, there is the question of who should pay for it. In the case of remote working, very little legislation exists to regulate the expenses that employers should take on, and those which should be left to the employee. It was only in 2014 that every worker was given the right to require flexible working, and since then, grey areas have multiplied.
For example, you might argue that a decent internet connection is key to productivity; and official guidelines do allow tax relief for some of the bills an employee has to pay because of home working. The same rules, however, also state that such claims can’t be made for things that can be used for both private and business use.
Much of the decision on how much money to give to whom is left in the hands of the employer. Work Wise UK’s Phil Flaxton says: “I would hope that responsible employers, be they SMEs or multinational corporations, would ensure that the health and well-being of their staff is a priority.”
“A responsible employer should ensure that people have the right equipment and they are not being asked to pay for it,” he added.
Although no law stipulates it, it is currently commonly accepted that employers should cover equipment such as ergonomic chairs, monitors, professional mobile phones, and so on. And since the start of the pandemic, the government has updated the rules saying that employers can pay up to £26 a month ($33) to cover additional costs induced by remote working.
But where the expense line should be drawn exactly remains unclear. In Switzerland, for example, a federal court recently ruled that an employee was entitled to a monthly compensation of CHF 150 ($160) from their employer to help with rent for a flat that could accommodate home working.
Should businesses take on the cost of their workers’ more spacious flats, if that means that their living spaces are more WFH-friendly? At least, should the rent for a local hot-desking facility be covered? If employees are to vacate offices on a semi-permanent basis, the idea doesn’t seem unreasonable.
“There are various HR issues that need to be addressed,” says Flaxton. “If you’re working from home, and book a drop-in space in a local facility, maybe your company should pay for it. Hopefully, they would.”
And yet Flaxton reported a more alarming trend occurring: during the pandemic, some employees have approached Work Wise UK to report that employers were considering pay cuts as a result of home working. In what he calls “unscrupulous behavior”, businesses are arguing that their workers are saving on commuting costs, and suggesting lower salaries as a result.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg suggested in a video-conference with employees that those moving to areas with lower costs of living could see their pay reduced as a result.
If anything, the controversy only highlights that the huge acceleration of remote working caused by the pandemic has left legislation running behind. And policy makers certainly have room to start thinking about the do’s and dont’s of ethical telecommuting.
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