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7: Apart but Connected. Is remote working here to stay?


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Apart but Connected. Is remote working here to stay?

The world of work is changing – and faster than we ever anticipated. With the spread of COVID-19 rapidly accelerating a massive societal shift towards home working, we ask whether now is the ideal time for businesses to think about making some more permanent changes, once the crisis is over?

Could this be the end of the traditional, desk-bound 9-5, and what does this mean for how we’ll do our jobs in future? We explore how “from-my-home-to-your-home” conversations are rewriting our relationship with colleagues and clients, and ask how our employers are reacting to this sudden upsurge in demand for smarter, agile and more flexible working.

And with our cities having previously been hubs for industry and commerce, could this new world of work change how we use our cities in future?

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Long Story Short

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What does a successful workplace strategy look like now?

Delivering a successful workplace strategy depends on bringing together an understanding of both the physical office estate with the behavioural aspects of strategic workforce planning. With business resiliency now more important than ever, Arcadis offers a full range of workplace solutions, combined with decades of experience working across the public and private sector to help clients futureproof their business.

To discuss your workplace strategy, get in touch directly


Emma Nelson [00:00:06] Hello and welcome to Long Story Short, the Future Cities podcast from Arcadis UK, I'm Emma Nelson and a very warm welcome. Thank you for joining us from wherever you may be. 

Emma Nelson [00:00:18] Remember when we crammed ourselves onto trains or sat in cars to get to work. Well our cities currently lie half empty, its workers scattered far and wide. So today we talk about how companies can successfully navigate their way out of lockdown. 

Charles Hecker [00:00:34]
 We're finally realising that this is not a sprint. This is a marathon. 

Emma Nelson [00:00:38] My guests, Suzanne Lloyd from Arcadis UK and Charles Hecker from Control Risks will join me from a safe distance. We'll ask when we venture out again, what will we be going back to? And what can we pull from these times of isolation into a better working world? 

Suzanne Lloyd [00:00:55]
 The kind of conversation we've been having have been from my home to your home, which I think gives a different type of openness. 

Emma Nelson [00:01:03] That's all to come on Long Story Short, the Future Cities podcast from Arcadis UK. And a very warm welcome. Whether it's a kitchen in a Cambridgeshire house, a suburban spare room, or tucked away in an attic apartment in the heart of Glasgow, the office has come to many of our homes. It's happened rapidly, violently, unexpectedly. Rushing forward many changes we thought would drip through over months and years, such as video conferencing and remote working. First, let's hear a little from those stuck at home about what they've learnt about living and working at home. 

Citizen - Adam [00:01:41] Hi, my name's Adam, Im a small business owner based in Leeds. As far as working from home goes, I've actually been surprised at how much there is to do in terms of administration and paperwork. But I can't wait for it to be over so I can get back out talking to clients and stuff. 

Citizen - Catherine [00:01:54]
 My name is Catherine Lewellyn amd I joined my new company on the first day of lockdown. While it's not the most conventional start to a job, I found that technology and regular catch ups of the team has meant that it's been a great start to my new job. 

Citizen - Chris [00:02:07] Hello, I'm Chris. Working from home is very, very different to working in the office. I feel totally dislocated from my regular team and I really can't wait for it to get back to normal. 

Citizen - Helen [00:02:18] I'm Helen. I work at a small charity. One nice and unexpected thing was that our postman now comes out of his way to deliver our work post to my house, which is my things a lot easier for me. 

Emma Nelson [00:02:30] Well, joining me from their own homes are my guests. 

Suzanne Lloyd [00:02:33] Hello, it's Suzanne Lloyd. I'm director of Workplace and Business Transformation at Arcadis. And I'm talking to you today from a little upstairs room in my home in Nottinghamshire. 

Charles Hecker [00:02:45] My name is Charles Hecker. I'm a partner at Control Risks, Control Risks as a specialist international risk consultancy. And I'm the global head of research in our political risk division. 

Emma Nelson [00:02:58] Suzanne, what have you learnt about working from home? 

Suzanne Lloyd [00:03:02] Well, I think it's been an interesting time for us all, hasn't it? Now you're seeing people quite often, you know, on the screen in their home setting and in their family circumstances with, you know, potentially a different dress sense. But there is an acceptable tolerance there I think about bringing your full self into the workplace, which I think has been quite refreshing. And my experience, certainly from talking to clients, has been around from my home to your home, which I think gives a different type of of openness. 

Emma Nelson [00:03:33] 
Charles, have we become more tolerant? 

Charles Hecker [00:03:36] You know, when you're working in a uniform environment like an office, everything's supposed to go fairly smoothly. And so if you were late for a meeting, you're sort of thinking, well, gee, why is this person late for a meeting? The meeting room is just around the corner. If you're at home and you don't dial in for a meeting exactly on time, I think everybody understands that maybe something's happening at home right now that's requiring a little bit of troubleshooting. And if you join five minutes late, everybody understands. 

Emma Nelson [00:04:01] So, Charles, those are the softer elements of working under the lockdown. But what are your clients worried about? 

Charles Hecker [00:04:06] Really, very few companies are designed to deal with crises of this sort of duration. Most companies can handle a cyber hack. Most companies can handle a hurricane or a flooding or something like that. Those are crises that are over in a few days or maybe in a couple of weeks. And here we are now into, broadly speaking, you know, almost two months of working and living and operating in an environment that's different to all of us. 

Charles Hecker [00:04:40] I think the second cycle now is the de-escalation. And I think that's going to pose a greater challenge to companies, because if the escalation was rapid and uniform, the de-escalation is going to be slow. It's going to be highly fragmented. Different countries, different regions, different cities and different counties are all going to resume economic life, business life and social life at different paces and under highly individual sorts of rules. And so for a large international organisations, this is going to mean embracing a type of complexity that we really haven't seen before. 

Emma Nelson [00:05:22] Suzanne, let's examine one element of this complexity, which is the where we will be working when this whole thing gradually starts to emerge into the sunlight. At the moment, we have this stark division, don't we? Between those who can stay at home to work and those who cannot. Now, you have been working for a long time advocating the idea of flexible working. What has everybody learnt from this recent experience? 

Suzanne Lloyd [00:05:49] Okay. So I think there are two elements to this. So particularly to those are outside the kind of more traditional office environments, I think this has been particularly difficult for people. So if you take, I don't know, a prison officer or a chef or a front line carer or an actor, they're in a very different scenario in terms of being able to adapt to agile working and working from home. But you've got an added complexity of those that perhaps could work from home, but in the current situation, it's making it very difficult. And it might be the case you've got somebody who perhaps shares a flat and therefore it's quite noisy, not really conducive to doing quiet work, or you may be a single parent, obviously with a child that needs educating. So how would you find the time in the day to be able to carry on doing your kind of normal job if if you have got, for example, the technology to do something working from home. 

[00:06:42] So I've been finding over the last couple of months is there's an amazing amount of creativity and innovation from organisations and individuals in terms of being able to work more flexibly. I was talking to a colleague the other day who's got a really small child and lives on her own, she's basically said that her company has allowed her to work much more flexible working hours. So rather than normal, 9:00 to 5:00, so to speak, she's able to get up early in the morning, really early in the morning before her child is awake, do a few hours first thing. And then actually when her child was in bed in the evening, then pick up the laptop and continue to work. So I think this whole idea of creativity and innovation and reinventing the way that some services are delivered is something I've certainly seen coming through. 

Emma Nelson [00:07:30] Charles, what are your thoughts on this? Because it's all well and good to have people able to work flexibly at different times. But if physically you have to go to work and in this day and age, going to work exposes you to a certain amount of risk. What advice can you give a client to make sure that the workers of not just in the next two months, three months, four months, but in the future, can feel as if they can work safely and productively? 

Charles Hecker [00:07:57] You know, I think this this is going to add a level of complexity to the sorts of issues that companies have to deal with and have to manage. I mean, there has been an increasing level of responsibility shifted onto companies in terms of duty of care. Cities are going to have to become more resilient as places to live and work. And the example of this is what happened in Moscow just a couple of days ago when citizens, Russian citizens living and working in Moscow needed a QR code on their phone to be able to access public transport. And that was designed to keep the burden of the public transport system down to enable social distancing and to reduce the transmission of the virus. And that's all very clever and very smart. And that's an example of a resilient approach to crisis management. The problem was that anybody who got a green QR code on their phone immediately ran for the nearest metro station and the stations were stopped. 

Emma Nelson [00:08:57] Suzanne, assuming that people can actually get in and out of towns more efficiently, what is the prospect of the existence of an office as it stands at the moment in a city? I wonder whether there are companies out here seeing this now as an opportunity to try and offload some real estate by saying it's great, we're all gonna be flexible working from home and they can sell off the office. 

Suzanne Lloyd [00:09:22] I think offices will still exist in the future, but I think they'll potentially be less of them and they'll work in a very different way. So, yes, of course, clients are looking at their real estate, looking at the cost of that and and determining whether there can be changes made in terms of the number of buildings. But if you think about before COVID, and many of the discussions I've been having with clients, whether that's in govenment, in water companies, in the financial sector, the pharmaceutical sector, they were starting to think about this concept of flexible working and smarter working anyway. One of the benefits of that was to look at how they might make some reductions in the cost of their estate. But we've also been talking to them about actually what the building might look and feel like inside. So gone are they days where you just need rows and rows and rows of desks and chairs. This is more about thinking how you use the office space that remains as being more of a collaboration area. You're bringing people together to work in an office. So if you have a report to write, for example, which I quite often do, why would I need to jump on a train, jump on two tubes to get into London, to sit at a desk and write that? When I could quite easily do that at home. But if I wanted to run a workshop with my team and get people together and come up with creative ideas etc, then I really want to use that office. But I may want to use in a very different way and have more collaboration areas and different kinds of meeting rooms and using the technology rather than the more traditional kind of desk and chair kind of layout. So I definitely think things will change in the future. They were about to change before COVID and I think what we've done now is just accelerate some of that thinking as to how people will use their estate in the future. 

Emma Nelson [00:11:13] You're listening to Long Story Short, the Future Cities podcast from Arcadis UK. I'm joined today remotely by my guests, Suzanne Lloyd from Arcadis and Charles Hecker from Control Risks. So with the nine to five plus commute a thing of fantasy at the moment, how will we work and what will cities have to do to accommodate this? Charles, let's begin with you. Some companies will want to go back to where we were. We are creatures of habit and some will want the old work routine. Has that now gone? 

Charles Hecker [00:11:47] I think there will be a certain amount of muscle memory and a certain amount of habit that will return to govern the way we live and the way we work. And don't forget that making changes to the way we work will involve a cost, and that may be a cost that companies aren't yet ready to bear. 

Charles Hecker [00:12:10] I think we have to return to full economic activity, to full economic recovery before most companies have the money, plain and simple, to make changes to the way they work, to make changes to their supply chains, to make changes to their offices and policies and procedures. But I think it's fair to say that something has changed and probably something has changed permanently. And I think Suzanne has it just right here because she said that this is a trend that was gathering momentum prior to the pandemic in any case and I think that one of the things that major crises do is they slow certain trends, but they accelerate other trends. 

Charles Hecker [00:12:52] And so the idea of working from home, or at least striking some sort of balance between office working and home working is a trend that will accelerate. I mean, I remember my own experience in this, and that was, you know, when I first started working from home under the lockdown I felt quite good about it because I knew I could dress a little bit more casually and sort of act a little bit more informally around the house. After a certain point, that novelty wore off and some of the challenges of working at home kind of came to the fore. And I think that now that we've been doing this for quite some time, I've re-established a certain type of equilibrium. 

[00:13:29] And I think that's what organisations do. I think that's what individuals do. And I just think that that's going to be the new position on the scale of of of home vs. office. 

Emma Nelson [00:13:42] So Suzanne, let's say you are an employer, a responsible one, what can you do at the moment to make sure that the people who you pay can work well away from the office? Is there room here for a social contract? 

Suzanne Lloyd [00:13:55]
 I think it's something that companies have been grappling with over these last couple of months in terms of really understanding their moral responsibility and that social contract, as you say, to ensure that people are working safely at home and there is a duty of care from that kind of element. And you can look at it from a pure health and safety perspective, both kind of mental and physical. So I've seen some examples of where colleagues are being allowed to, you know, take home large monitors, tables and chairs, etc., to make sure they're set up effectively at home and are not causing themselves and any issues in terms of back problems. But I think where I've seen and the best examples of really supporting people is around kind of providing that advice, companies providing advice around the importance of taking breaks and of getting exercise, of protecting your mental health and offering and sharing top tips in terms of how to be able to switch off. And we've all done it, haven't we, in terms of working from home for the day, it's getting into the evening, it's just like a one more e-mail, one more call. And before you know it, it's started to kind of each into your normal kind of private time that you would have with your family. 

Emma Nelson [00:15:11] Suzanne, how do you strike that balance, though, when you're a company and you can't afford to implement all the nice stuff that you mentioned there? Because at this point in time, you might be facing the prospect of surviving or going under completely? 

Suzanne Lloyd [00:15:25] Yes, you do need to make decisions, especially those perhaps smaller companies who are relying on perhaps more good will than normal to keep organisations afloat. But we have to balance that in terms of, you know, sensibility around looking after our own personal health. And in fact, if you're driving people too hard, then they're not going to be constructive in terms of being able to work for you. And it's going to have the reverse effect. But it's a very fine line and a difficult balance, especially at the moment. 

Emma Nelson [00:15:56] Charles, what are your thoughts on this when companies are now cut to the bone? 

Charles Hecker [00:16:01]
 You know, when every company is in a crisis, one of the messages that companies send out is, you know, we're all in this together. Let's pull together. You know, all hands on deck, which the signal that that sends is you all better be working really, really hard and you all better be on your laptops 24/7. I think that we're finally realising that this is not a sprint. This is a marathon. And, you know, that is a well-worn expression. But one of the reasons why it's well worn  is in the cases like this, it's true. And I think that companies, while they're dealing with a short term crisis, have to take an extremely long term perspective on the future and how we get out of this. And so while you're troubleshooting and while you're putting out bushfires and while you're acting tactically, companies now must absolutely spend some of their time and some of their energy thinking strategically. Those are the companies that will see opportunity. Those are the companies that will deal with change. And those are the companies that will adapt them most flexibly. 

Emma Nelson [00:17:00] And what about the concerns, Suzanne, that people have had that we are now going to be divided into a world which can work remotely, can be technically savvy, and those who simply cannot will not are unable to get online and work remotely. And there's a fear that they will be left behind and no longer be relevant to the working world. 

Suzanne Lloyd [00:17:22] So there was never kind of an intention to move us all as a society to homeworkers persay kind of hundred percent, but to look for an intermediate kind of arrangement whereby maybe two days a week you work from home and the other day you are going into the office, so to speak, as normal. And so people are, I think, continuing to think of this concept around where do you strike the balance and what it will look like when we return? And yes, we have talked about, you know, there's a range of roles whereby that flexibility is not really appropriate because of the very work that they're doing. But if you look at defining this whole concept of agile working, flexible working, smarter working whatever you want to call it, it's not only just about working from home and working from the place of work, your office. It's a cultural change that needs to go around that, it's the use of technology, as you mentioned. And certainly some roles can be using that technology rather than necessary, even, for example, travelling around the city. We have an idea that we use Arcadis quite a lot that's come to the fore recently, which is called reverse mentoring. So when you get some of the younger generation fresh out of university, bright, loads of ideas, used to working in the technology space, they have been working with some of our top executives to help them understand a bit more about this kind of art form around how you use technology, how you use video conferencing, how you set up webinars, etc. and it's been hugely successful. 

Emma Nelson [00:18:58] Well, we've talked a little on what cities and leaders will need to think about as and when we emerge from the pandemic. Let's examine in a little bit more depth about what our cities will need and what they will be used for. Charles, we have been so used to going into work, coming out of work and being in one place morning, noon and night. There's a 9:00 to 5:00. That's gone away. We now have this issue of a city being absolutely empty, don't we? 

Charles Hecker [00:19:26] Yeah, it's quite an eerie feeling. Living in central London. And I do go out to take some exercise and to pick up some shopping. And it's quite unusual. And while you might think this is a pleasurable experience because the city is empty and it's sort of all yours, it's not it's quite disorienting. And the role of cities and the place of cities going forward is going to be interesting because, you know, it wasn't too long ago, in fact, there was an exhibit at the Tate Modern about this that marked the moment a few years ago when more than 50 percent of the world's population started living in cities. And one of the stories of globalisation and one of the stories of the past couple of decades has been one of urban growth and relocation into cities. Even though they're empty now, they will soon be repopulated. And cities as a focus of economic and social activity, I suspect, have to remain central to going forward, because one of the reasons why you have cities is that they're efficient. They bring lots of different types of people with different skills altogether in the same place at the same time. And that's what generates the creative energy of the urban environment. That's what generates the economic activity of the of the urban environment. And yes, of course, all of the social things that we enjoy, the restaurant scene, the cultural scene, being close to friends and family, being able to jump on a tube, being able to jump on a bus or in a taxi and get someplace interesting very, very quickly, I think will remain important. We are social animals at the end of the day and we require contact with other people. 

Suzanne Lloyd [00:21:12] We love our cities. You know, they have huge vibrancy. They are engine rooms of our society. They are where we want to work and live and play and learn. And I don't think that's really going to go away. I think, as Charles mentioned, we're going to have to take a take a deep breath on all of this in terms of how we might work in the future in a more sustainable way, perhaps in a more balanced way, in a more innovative way. It's about getting that balance right in terms of being able to take all the positive out of what has been a terrific pandemic scenario. And we've been catapulted into our homes, but we are learning from that. And I think we will get into a new world, a new norm over the next few months. 

Emma Nelson [00:21:55] And that brings us to the end of today's show. Suzanne Lloyd from Arcadis and Charles Hecker from Control Risks. Thank you both very much for joining me. And if you enjoyed that, make sure you subscribe. You'll find fresh podcasts popping up each month all at 

Emma Nelson [00:22:15] There'll be lots of extras, too, all to do with the future of our cities. You've been with Long Story Short, the Future Cities podcast from Arcadis UK. I'm Emma Nelson. Goodbye. Thank you for listening. And stay safe.

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