COVID-19 and working from home

COVID-19 and working from home

20 March 2020

Self-isolation and the rise in working from home in a time of health crisis will increase the demand for apartments with more space to work in, says a Sydney landscape architect who is in quarantine and awaiting the results of his own coronavirus test.

The pandemic has prompted many employers to implement work-from-home policies and triggered restrictions on indoor gatherings of more than 100 people. As a result, the demand for homes that can support working as well would increase, said Adrian McGregor, global director of design at McGregor Coxall, landscape architects for the Sydney Modern expansion of the Art Gallery of NSW.

“I do think it is going to cause a global shift in work from home arrangements,” Mr McGregor said from his Balgowlah home on Wednesday.

“Homes, whether they be houses or apartments, are going to have to be fitted out with space for working from home. Adding a studio or something into an apartment has a big spatial implication. Therefore the cost of an apartment becomes more problematic as well.”

“I think this is a watershed moment in terms of wider acceptance and implementation of work-from-home,” said Philippe Weiss, president of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, the Chicago-based workplace training subsidiary of the law firm Seyfarth Shaw.

“Employees that have tasted the benefits of more freedom and autonomy are going be hard pressed to let it go.”

Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, a Chicago-based software company that allows all 56 of its employees to work remotely as often as they like, said he expects a bumpy ride at first at companies scrambling to get their systems in place to accommodate remote working. But the likelihood that the emergency won’t be over quickly means they’ll have a chance to smooth out the wrinkles and get comfortable with such arrangements long term.

“Eventually people will go back to offices,” Fried said. “But I think that remote work will now be a tool in the toolbox. They won’t be afraid of it.”

The key, he says, is not just to implement the right video conferencing tools, but to shift the mindset about what it means to work collaboratively.

“The ones who stumble are the ones who try to emulate what they do in the office,” said Fried, who estimates less than 10 per cent of his workforce is at headquarters on a given day. “This is an opportunity to finally not have so many meetings, to write things down instead of saying them out loud.”

Stella Garber, who works remotely from her Chicago home as product marketing lead at Trello, a New York-based software firm that makes task management platforms, has been managing a geographically scattered team for six years. She spends much of her day in meetings on Zoom, the video conferencing tool whose stock is up about 60 per cent since the start of the year, which can be configured to show everyone’s face like a “Brady Bunch” grid so colleagues can see each other’s reactions.

The number one thing companies have to understand is that remote work is just going to be different, and as a result teams have to agree to new rituals and norms, she said. For example, everyone might agree to set their status on Slack, a messaging tool, to say when they’re off to lunch. Slack might also become the virtual water cooler when people just need to gab.

Shaowei Toh, UBS head of real estate research and strategy, Asia Pacific, said “Before this epidemic, working from home or mobile working was arguably more a concept that was ‘good to have’ but never really implemented in a big way, at least in most of APAC.”

“When this COVID-19 outbreak is behind us, we believe many office tenants will review their fixed real estate space requirements, especially if this involuntary experiment with mobile working has resulted in comparable levels of efficiency,” said Mr Toh.

In the past week some of Australia’s largest companies have begun to send all or some of their workforce home, including Mirvac, Investa, big four consulting firm EY, Westpac and the Commonwealth Bank, which started splitting parts of their workforces into different locations and rotating staff that work from home.

The working-from-home experiment across the country resulted in home office products such as stand-up desks, computer monitors, webcams and printers running out at Officeworks this week.

“The notion of mobility and flexible working is being truly tested during this COVID-19 crisis,” Mr Toh said.

“As countries seek to limit human-to-human contagion, many companies have activated business contingency plans and home-based working is becoming a daily routine for many workers.