Live: The future of work is here

The practice of flexible working or working from home has gone from a trickle to a flood in recent weeks, as social distancing measures close offices across the UK. Richard Dawson speaks to Jen Hartley, director of Invest Newcastle, about how the future of work has been brought forward and what to do now that it’s here

The rapidly unfolding public health emergency that is COVID-19 has completely disrupted the meaning of the workplace, possibly forever. Across the UK, everyone is trying to adjust to the new normal, without really knowing yet what it looks like.

“It’s far from the usual”, admits Jen Hartley, director of Invest Newcastle. “It’s a different world from the one we had two weeks ago.”

In many ways, the future of work has been brought forward.

Working from home and conducting business meetings remotely was, just a few short weeks ago, the preserve of the tech-savvy. Now all of us have to learn how to use Skype, Teams and Zoom and get to grips with a much more open, flexible working day.

Agile working is something Jen Hartley is quite used to, having previously worked for Tech City UK where she was responsible for promoting tech trade and investment opportunities across the whole of the Northern Powerhouse.

But even Jen concedes that there are challenges as well as advantages of working from home, which is why it’s important to put a plan in place to make sure you stay healthy, happy and productive.

At Invest Newcastle, the team has daily “stand ups” to keep everyone connected and to keep everything on track.

Jen explains: “Every morning, we have half an hour where we all talk through our priorities because, even at the best of times when you’re working from home, it can be quite isolating, especially if you live on your own.

“We’ve got team members who do live on their own and we need to make sure that they feel supported and listened to.

“Running through priorities, especially when priorities are changing by the day, helps us stay focussed as well.”

Another challenge with working from home is that the boundary which normally exists between life and work is harder to define.

It’s therefore crucial that people still keep some kind of structure to their days, knowing when to clock on in the morning but also when to clock off at night.

“You have to form a structure to your day,” says Jen. “Set yourself up with a desk or some kind of workspace. Not only does that help your posture, but you’ve then also got a bit of a boundary.

“Also, have a clear mark to the end of your day. Close your laptop and don’t look at it again. Tell people that you’re offline and if there’s something urgent to ring you on your mobile.”

For Jen, there’s also the additional challenge of having a three-year-old at home with her at the same time.

She says: “Children can’t figure out why you are not completely available to them while you’re at home.

“I’m really conscious, like every other parent I’m sure, of your children seeing you spend a lot of time on your laptop or mobile. It’s difficult to set that example.”

One potential upside to the whole population transitioning to homeworking is that colleagues get a better understanding of what each other’s home life looks like and the various different responsibilities people have to juggle on a day-to-day basis.

“There’s been so many instances of kids jumping in on video calls,” Jen laughs. “But at the end of the day, people don’t mind it.

“We’re not in the same world anymore and it doesn’t mean that you’re not professional if your child is coming into a call because now, we’re all having to work around this new way of working.”

A flexible working policy is something that many businesses touted the benefits of but were slow to adopt internally.

If the COVID-19 has done one thing, it has forced this change on many companies that were looking at it anyway.

It will be interesting to see, if and when the public health crisis abates, whether the future of work is here to stay or whether workers will flood back to the office at the first opportunity.