Work from home: Could coronavirus kill your commute?

By Adam Smith on Friday, 13 March 2020

Next time you are sitting on the train, the bus, or the Tube, look around you. You will notice that the carriage is not as crowded as usual.

If you are a clockwork commuter like me, you will notice that characters from your morning commute are no longer making their regular appearance. The chap with the flamboyant socks has not been seen for at least two days. Is he on holiday?

Of course he isn’t. Flamboyant sock man has been put in a coronavirus-induced work from home (WFH) test period. Businesses across the country are currently testing their staff, their IT and their flexible working policies, in many cases for the first time.

So far, from a consumer perspective, the main thing the coronavirus has changed is our appetite for buying toilet roll and hand sanitiser.

But from a business perspective, our ability to adapt to an environment without face-to-face interactions could be the biggest challenge.

Over half a million office workers exist in the Square Mile; that is 10 per cent of London’s total workforce.

From traders to PR professionals, millions of miles are travelled every day to enable face-to-face communications, whether that be an internal meeting, a networking event, or a working lunch.

That is about to change — and coronavirus is the catalyst. The digital communication world will come to the fore — and by that I do not just mean emails and video calls. The bigger challenge is finding ways to continue with mass audience occasions.

Just consider how many live events have been cancelled, rescheduled or modified in an effort to prevent spreading the virus.

Stormzy has cancelled the Asian leg of his world tour, Facebook has cancelled its F8 Developer Conference in San Jose, and even James Bond is self-isolating until November 2020. Billions of pounds are going to be lost.

So how will businesses survive?

For a start, they will take a look at the Pope. Yesterday, the Pope’s general audience address was streamed from the Vatican’s apostolic palace, rather than in St. Peter’s Square.

This is one of the biggest technological signs of the times since the royal family televised the Queen’s coronation in 1953.

And like the religious world, very little stops business. The pressure to continue is too great. That means it evolves — fast. Specialists in live-streaming events and conferences will be inundated with job offers.

But while this is just one example of business embracing technology, ultimately, it’s the starting gun for a change in the way we, as a society, view going to work. What does going to work mean for staff if they are not physically in an office?

It means we will be forced to test, learn, and ultimately embrace flexible working and the technology that enables it to happen.

You may read this on your way to work and think: “I can’t work from home. My employer doesn’t have a policy, and I’m afraid people will presume I’m sitting in my pyjamas and watching cat videos.”

The fact is, you could do that. But you won’t (all the time). You have a job to do.

While I write this I am sitting in my dining room. My 18-month-old son is playing with my mother-in-law in the front room — I actually get to see him today. I’ve already been on a Skype call, worked on a Google doc with a colleague, and I’m advising a client on ways to continue to capitalise on a cancelled event via email.

In a decade’s time, WFH won’t be a dirty word. The majority of office workers will be doing it, and we will be healthier for it.

Let’s hope that the biggest impact of the coronavirus pandemic is a shortage of loo roll and an acceptance of flexible working.

This article originally appeared in City AM on 12th March 2020.

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