Published: 06:00, 18 June 2021
| Updated: 16:41, 18 June 2021
Fifteen months ago, most of us had not heard of Zoom. And our homes were a treasured refuge from the workplace.
But today the majority of us continue to work on kitchen tables, in spare bedrooms or on make-shift desks as we await the lifting of the 'work from home' guidance.
Yet, according to experts, a return to how things used to be may no longer be on the cards.
For some, the lockdowns and restrictions have delivered the fulfilment of a long-held desire to finally achieve a better work/life balance. Others have found it an increasingly frustrating period where the distractions of home and lack of face-to-face contact has led to a dip in motivation or mental health challenges.
"Prior to March 2020, many of us dreamt of working from home," explains Hannah Adams, a senior manager at Sidcup-based accountants McBrides. "But the reality has proved not to be quite so dreamy.
“I’ve spoken to many colleagues and friends who have changed their minds about working from home having done it through lockdown.
"There are certain jobs that are well suited to being locked away undisturbed at home, but there are also jobs that are better suited to the office. If you offered working from home to my team, I think 90% would say they’d rather be in the office.”
But while many will leap at the chance to get back to some sort of pre-pandemic normality, don't get too excited just yet.
Quite aside from the likely reshaping of working spaces to help overcome an inevitable anxiety for many about returning to bustling offices after a frantic commute, there’s been a fundamental shift in the way workers are expected to perform their duties.
So just what will life in the office be like when we can all finally return?
"It's going to be nowhere near the normal we were used to," explains Nicholas Clarke, deputy dean of the Kent Business School at the University of Kent and professor of organisational behaviour and human resources management.
"The pandemic has probably moved us five years fast forward in terms of working from home and increasing flexible working.
"People's attitudes towards that have changed quite significantly.
"There have been surveys in the US and the UK which show an increasingly positive perception of working from home. Previously there was quite a stigma to it.
"Flexible working was introduced in the UK in 2014. But studies from the TUC, for example, in 2019, show that one in three requests were generally turned down. And it tended to be something that was thought of mainly for women with parenting or caring responsibilities.
"The pandemic has totally changed that."
There is no denying that, for many, home-working has had a transformative effect on their lives; reconnecting with their children, losing the stress and strain of the commute and reminding them that there is more to life than the office.
Sarah Cole is marketing and communications manager at Hever Castle. She explained: “I found it very difficult to switch from work mode to home mode without the drive home. I was surprised at how 20 minutes in the car on my own could make such a difference but I learnt to replace this with exercise.
"I find I get less interruptions and can be more focused and effective. As a result of my experience of home schooling I have realised that I can work effectively, even with my child at home, and the opportunity to work from home has meant I have been able to spend more quality time with my daughter.
"Ultimately, the decision going forward on whether we will continue to work in this way will come from the CEO but I would have no issues with my team working from home from time to time. It has provided a better balance for some staff, particularly those with children of school age.”
Undoubtedly, management teams at firms across the county are going to have to think long and hard about how they bring their staff back into the workplace when restrictions are eased.
"There's no question that businesses can function with home-working," says Jonathan Neame, chief executive of Faversham-based brewer and pub giant Shepherd Neame. "But they can only function to a certain level.
"There are certain things you can get out of face-to-face meetings which you massively miss on Zoom, so it very much depends on the nature of the business.
"We're a hospitality business, and we're a people business."
The 56-year-old has certainly faced his own challenges since the first lockdown was imposed in March 2020.
"It has been the first time in my career I'd been based outside the office and I must admit I didn't particularly like it," he admits.
"I've got to dislike it more and more as time's gone on. I can see the merits of certain tasks – if you need to write a report or if you need real quiet you can be more productive from home, I get that.
"It has been the first time in my career I'd been based outside the office and I must admit I didn't particularly like it."
"But for most other things I miss the face-to-face contact, I miss the spontaneity of a meeting, which can often go in a different direction to the one you anticipate.
"I miss the banter and I miss the cultural heartbeat of our business in our head office."
He admits his view of home-working has changed over the course of the crisis – seeing the positives and the benefits it can have on staff. But it is not without some reservations.
He explains: "We're all moving into a more flexible world, that's absolutely certain, and it will suit some people to work the majority of time in the office, and for others at home.
"But I think all business leaders will need to work quite hard to find out when the periods in the week are going to be when people are expected to meet face-to-face and ensure that culture and community is preserved.
"Covid has accelerated trends and I think any employer will have to be open and flexible going forward.
"You need to determine which functions need to be in the office and which do not.
"If people have kids at home, it's quite important you have hours of work when everyone knows you should be expected to return an email or whatever it might be."
Certainly some of Kent's biggest employers have made significant moves to adjust to the new 'normal' we will, eventually, emerge into.
Saga, headquartered in Folkestone, had a major call centre neighbouring the Westwood Cross shopping centre between Ramsgate and Broadstairs. But the travel and insurance giant decided earlier this year to sell the site and transition the 600 call-handlers into permanent home-workers. Since it moved out, the building has been used as Thanet's main Covid vaccination centre.
A spokesman explained at the time: "This permanently flexible approach means it is no longer necessary for us to maintain as much office space as we previously held within our portfolio."
It was also a useful way to cut costs during such a challenging period.
Adds Professor Clarke of the Kent Business School: "A British Property Federation survey recently found almost half of mid and large size UK companies are planning to move offices within the next few years. And a third said they'll be downsizing because staff will be working more remotely.
"Of course, one of the drivers for businesses is costs. And many companies have suffered brutally in terms of revenues over the pandemic.
"This is quite extraordinary, because this is a kind of revolution in terms of the amount of autonomy we're going to be giving workers compared to how we've worked previously.
"A third of firms moving offices said they'll be downsizing because staff will be working more remotely."
"Certainly employees report that productivity has either remained the same or increased as a result of home working and businesses can see the benefits."
However, the TUC has recently warned of “a new class divide” between those who were able to work from home in the pandemic, who will find it easier to achieve more flexible working patterns in the future, and those who worked from workplaces or were furloughed, who may have fewer options for flexible working patterns.
Its general secretary, Frances O'Grady, explained: "It’s likely many workers will want to spend more time working from home than before. And it's vital that employers have positive and constructive discussions with staff and unions about how to make this work.
"But a sole focus on home working rights would create new inequalities for those who cannot easily work from home. All workers need stronger rights to the full range of flexible working options like flexitime, predictable shifts and job shares.
“The Prime Minister must urge employers to think through how they can offer a range of flexible working patterns to all their workers, whether based in a workplace or not.”
It's a potentially tricky tightrope for many firms as they dust off the watercooler ready for staff to return as restrictions ease.
We have, of course, become rather adept at ensuring the background to our Zoom calls isn't full of dirty dishes or cardboard boxes. But while advances in technology has allowed us to keep in regular contact with our colleagues and managers, imagine if you joined a company out of university during this most bizarre of times.
Samuel Wootten, 23, joined McBrides as a trainee chartered accountant after graduating in the summer of 2020.
"I found the initial adjustment to home working quite tricky, as I am sure everyone has over the past year and a half," he explains.
"My induction to the firm was a blend of online and in-person. Prior to the third lockdown in December, I managed to meet my fellow trainee colleagues, which I really appreciated as we have been keeping in touch since we started training at the firm.
"I think I expected to not be immediately working from the office given the nature of 2020 but I feel very lucky to have gained some time working in the office – especially more recently. This has given me further opportunities to meet with and develop working relationships with my colleagues."
Tanya Hamilton, a partner at McBrides who heads staff wellbeing and personal development, added: “I became very concerned students may not take a break and could be working all day online, and then following this up with studying online in the evening, so we had regular chats about balance, introducing them to the people who were there to help them through, and then we brought them back into the office as soon as was safe to do so in order to establish this balance."
Adds Professor Clarke: "This all needs to be put in terms of people's changing expectations and aspirations of what they want from work.
"We all know, in terms of Generation X, they want a meaningfulness from the world of work. And that is centre stage more than anything else. They're interested in climate change, in organisations who pursue a social responsibility agenda.
"So working from home more can deliver benefits in terms of less commute time, less carbon footprint and greater work/life balance.
"Of course, you then get a sharing of caring roles, perhaps, and the rest of it. But these things actually matter. And I suspect they matter far more than the office environment."
Law firm Brachers, which has offices in Maidstone and Canterbury, has already decided to offer a far more flexible approach to its employees.
Managing partner Joanna Worby explains: “We are keen to allow our staff to enjoy the flexibility they have valued over the last year or so and retain some autonomy.
"Requiring everyone to work, say a minimum of two or three days in the office, and the same days every week, does not enable this, we are therefore taking an individual or team approach. We are encouraging everyone to come in some of the time, particularly for client meetings, internal meetings, supervision or to collaborate."
Adds Jonathan Neame: "The challenges for the managers of the future is they need to ensure people are not being left behind. That the new joiner, the shy person, are not being over-looked because others do the talking on Zoom.
"I genuinely think there's a mental health issue which underlines all this. If you're working in your bedroom or your kitchen at home and you've got other distractions, it's very difficult to separate your home and work life.
"The sheer function of getting up, and going to a different place, a different stimulus, is overall healthy for you.
"But I accept for some people that comes at a significant alternative cost, either a financial cost of travelling or the hassle of commuting."
Ultimately, it will come down to individual circumstance – and the industry in which you work.
But the fundamental positives are hard to ignore, especially some of those which many felt would be a nuisance at first.
Explains Professor Clarke, who says companies have also been forced to accelerate mental health support to staff: "If you ask people now, although there was added stress from having children at home when the schools were closed, many now report they actually enjoyed the time they've spent with their family and really valued that.
"So there are quite enormous benefits in terms of this new way of working.
"You've got to remember that 40% of the working population suddenly went to home working. It’s been quite an amazing experiment in terms of how people have actually adapted within quite a short space of time to that sort of work mode.
"I think the whole experience has been unlike anything we've ever come across."
And if you're sick to death of Zoom meetings, consider this: "Zoom takes you into someone's home,” explains Professor Clarke.
“In a sense, it's helped to develop relationships at work. It brings in a level of intimacy that was not there before. People are interested in people's lives, lives that are outside of the workplace. People have shared stories of how they're managing.
"There has been a sea change in those things.
"I don't believe, when it comes to greater flexibility in working, it can now be turned back."