The ColladoCollins COVID-19 story
22 May 2020
Work, in its present form, is easy for some and impossible for others.
As of 13th May those of us that are able to work from home are being asked to continue to do so for at least another two months, whilst those that are unable are being pushed to return to the workplace, and to commute by private, rather than public, transport if at all possible.
We are privileged to be in an industry where working from home is not only possible but has been proven to have no detrimental effect on our productivity. We are safe and busy, and able to reflect on the past, present, and future of working in a way not afforded to the key workers, hospitality staff, and construction operatives who face dangerous and uncertain futures in the workplace.
I spoke to three of our team, in different circumstances and life stages, who shared their thoughts and views on work, life, balancing the two, and what the impact on the design of homes and cities on a post-Covid 19 world might be.
I began by asking Carlota Boyer how the current enforced isolation was working for her, and whether as a self-professed sociable person she could ever see herself working from home by choice.
‘At the moment everyone is in the same situation, so everything is online. What’s been good is that all this technology that’s enabling homeworking at the moment has been around for a long time, and now it’s being widely used it gives credibility to the general campaigns for more flexible working.’
There are drawbacks, of course, primarily since the majority of our homes are not designed to be workplaces.
‘Your living room is now your meeting room. My partner works in the same industry and he’s having an important video meeting right now so I’m sat outside, which you might not be able to do in a Studio apartment. We have to share the space and be ready to just ‘sit out’ when in a video conference with Historic England, or the GLA, because you don’t really want someone in the background making tea.
‘I think having one other room, even a small one, where someone can have a private conversation at home as well, will need to be in the space standards in the future.
‘Perhaps in a world constantly at risk of deadly infection we should prepare the home to be the workplace, much like we have been changing the workplace to be more like home – an inversion of what we have been doing to offices. Perhaps this is the next step in the evolution of our understanding of home and what it provides, as an evolved workspace.’
I asked Carlota whether that meant we could do away with an office altogether, or whether she thought having an identified and sociable workplace was still important.
‘It’s very important. Aside from work, and that it enables collaboration, I think that human contact is essential. We are a team that supports each other both in a professional way and in a physical and mental way, for our mental health.
Roy Collado, a long-time advocate of the office as the key place to carry out work, is softening in his attitude to working from home as a result of the successes we have experienced during this period of lockdown.
‘As an employer, and a parent, I can see how some would benefit from the flexibility of working from home or at the office, especially single parents and families that have to balance working with school schedules and holidays.
‘It depends on what you need to do, and when you need to do it and can do it best. I know the parents in our team are balancing work and family and maybe working earlier in the morning and then later in the evening to spend a few hours with their children in the middle of the day.
One such parent is Alex Perry, an Associate at ColladoCollins with a young family who, under normal circumstances, spends four hours of every working day commuting to and from our London office from his home in Wokingham. I spoke to Alex about life with and without the commute and separating work and family life.
‘If you’d asked me before lockdown, I would have said it was a bit of a pain, but I like working in London. If you asked me now, I’d say I miss it slightly because it’s two hours of my own thoughts, peace and quiet at either end of the working day. I don’t get that anymore.
‘I really miss being in a busy working environment where everyone has tasks and it’s very easy to get up and walk over to someone and see what they’re doing.
‘In the office most of my team sit next to me or a few seats away from me, and it’s quite easy to look over someone’s shoulder, make a quick comment, steer the process in seconds and make sure they understand. It seems a bit more intrusive now to call my team up, because we’re all working from home. People are taking a more fluid approach to the day so you can’t tell whether they are working or exercising, shopping, eating, and so on.
And what of the extra four hours Alex has ‘gained’ through not having to commute?
‘In terms of using the time I have got back, it’s great! I get up with the family, we all have breakfast together like they do in the movies, then dad gets up and says “OK, I’m off to work now”, but instead of jumping into a Chrysler I’m just walking up the stairs and shutting myself in the spare bedroom.
‘The nicest thing is that 5.30 moment at the end of the day when I can pack it all up and be back with the family straight away – to be reminded that there are other responsibilities, and to be able to be the relieving force when my wife is tearing her hair out, is great.
In the future, Alex feels that occasional working from home could benefit a lot of people who volunteer in their local community, and could enable more people to do so.
‘I’m a Scout Leader, so previously every Monday evening I had to leave the office early, hurry home, wolf down some dinner and head to the scout hut. In the future I might be able to work from home on Mondays and then take on more home responsibilities, not have to rush everywhere, and fill my life with more time with family. Volunteering should be a good thing, but sometimes it feels like a real drag because it entails all the rushing about. It’s one more thing to deal with. If working from home makes people more time rich, maybe they would be able to devote some of that time to volunteering, to helping someone else out, or to simply spending more time with the kids so they see their parents more. That’s got to be a good thing.
Alex and I discussed the relative costs of commuting, and how perhaps the idea of a fixed period season ticket was no longer the way rail companies should be charging their customers.
‘I had a look into the cost of mixing working from home and commuting to the office, and figured out that the most cost-effective means of getting to the office is an annual ticket if you work any more than one day per week in the office.
‘What we really need to support flexible working is flexible travel tickets. Say you ‘buy’ a set number of journeys per year, 150 journeys to cover three days per week for example, and then use them as and when needed. The technology is there to support it, I use a ‘key card’ rather than a paper ticket, but the transport system seems to be stuck in the idea of full-time work. Before now why would they think differently? For the future to enable working more flexibly, the way we commute and pay for that journey needs to be more flexible.’
But is a single, central office the right solution for a small business like ours, or for any office-based business? Carlota and I ended our conversation with speculations on the future of the workplace.
‘Maybe the future of the office is to have local offices where different people from different backgrounds and professions can get together and share a space and have that physical, social interaction where you can have all the things that you need without having to commute an hour and a half either way.
‘It’s a play off what WeWork has done the past, but rather than providing big offices in central London for small business to tap into, it’s providing small offices nearer to people’s homes that even big companies can use with a more dispersed workforce, so people stay more local.’
We jointly speculate as to whether such a change could in fact lead to a rebirth for our high streets. More people would be spending time in their local area, and rather than being dormitories empty in the daytime commuter towns could be reinvigorated as vibrant local centres. A variety of different sized working hubs from the boutique to the department store, in a network across the country, would perhaps mean that location was not quite as critical as before.
If public transport remains something we need to avoid as a potential place where infection can spread, and we are dealing with this virus and its mutations for years to come, then a more local way of working will have to become the norm. What that does to the cities that rely on a huge influx of workers to occupy their offices and support the service industries that would otherwise have no customers is another question.
As long ago as the turn of the millennium urban thinkers like Edward Soja were questioning what the impact of information technology would be on the metropolis, and whether it would in effect mean the death-and-rebirth of the city once again. After the urban-centric manufacturing boom of the late 19th and early 20th Century, industry moved to the periphery of the city taking the working population with it and gutting the centres. After years of urban decline and the emergence of a global service economy those same city centres were repurposed into the offices, coffee shops, sandwich bars and restaurants we see today. Does something as small but persistent as a virus have the ability to instigate a seismic shift in the morphology of our cities and homes?
Old habits are hard to break, and often only broken out of necessity. Our response to Covid-19 may well precipitate a more radical change in not only how we work, but in how we shape our urban environment to enable work.