Here at Murray Birrell we had previously remained focussed on an office-centric policy, with limited remote working. The lockdown threw us in to a steep learning curve of using video-call and meeting technology, and also the etiquette of how to behave in virtual meetings with colleagues and with clients – all that talking over each other and then silences when nobody spoke.
Right now we are gradually returning to the office, though while use of London’s public transport is at a third of the pre-coronavirus level, traffic levels are already at 83% of what they were. The number of people avoiding public transport, maybe for months to come, is likely to heighten road congestion, and while we are firm advocates of the benefits of our team members meeting in person with each other and with clients to collaborate on various projects, we can see a case for continuing with some amount of working from home if commuting is regularly going to take longer than before.
Perhaps our new-found Zoom and Microsoft Teams skills also point towards creating some sound-proofed “Video Booths” in the office for a greater level of confidentiality and less disturbance of colleagues.
As we begin to re-convene in the office more regularly, it has been interesting to catch up on how we all found working at home for three months. The “empty nesters” among us were fortunate to have a choice of rooms to take their laptop to and work from. Simple adjustments had a definite impact. Our co-founder and director Keith Murray found his efficiency took a step forward when he gave himself a better ‘working environment’ and a window to see out of rather than a blank wall to look at.
Other families with school-age children had to rotate access to computers, and multi-task between work requirements and home schooling. It could be hard to fit in all the time demands, and it wasn’t uncommon for people to have to put in an evening shift from time to time, working to 10 or 11pm to keep up.
What has come through from our collective personal experiences is that the working day lost many of its natural ‘punctuation points.’ And for those with limited options, the place someone might sit at the start of the day and catch up on the news would be where they started working. With few opportunities to go anywhere else it wasn’t uncommon to be rooted to the spot for most of the day, and then be in the same place to watch the evening’s tv or box sets, go on social media, whatever.
Jack Donovan, our most recently MRICS qualified building surveyor, found it was crucial to have a defined space for working so that he could shut the door behind him when he finished, and switch off mentally as well as electronically.
People without access to a garden, or any other sort of outdoor space, were found to be particularly prone to feeling a little ‘stir crazy’ during the lockdown. And this applied as well to furloughed workers.
Two key outcomes of this include the higher number of people having stronger feelings of anxiety and stress, which for many people aren’t going away as the media talk more and more about forthcoming mass unemployment.
During the lockdown we were fortunate to not only continue to work on existing projects but we also received several new instructions, from existing and even new clients. Perhaps that was helped by our stronger online presence through added investment we’ve made in social media marketing in the past couple of years.
The other key outcome is much higher demand for properties with gardens or other outside space. A study by the online estate agent Rightmove has found searches by buyers in May for homes with gardens were up 42% year-on-year, and for renters they were up 84%. A good internet connection and a spare room are also higher up on wish-lists, while commuting times and transport links are less important.
With the housing market given a shot in the arm by the Chancellor’s temporary raising of the stamp duty threshold to £500,000, we could very soon start to see how much of that shift in priorities becomes a reality. In the meantime, Samantha Bellia, a partner responsible for residential conveyancing at Lightfoots Solicitors in Princes Risborough near Oxford, has seen a steep rise in the number of enquiries about main residence local properties from people living in London.
For those not considering a move anytime soon, the installation or creation of a small office area could be an option, perhaps a small cupboard that opens up into a desk, or something similar, with connectivity available. “The lockdown was slightly different to normal home working, but even so, I think it is perhaps something housebuilders could take into account,” said our co-founder and director Stuart Birrell.
Adjusting to a post-pandemic “new normal,” and how far that will diverge from previous norms, will depend on the degree to which employers accept and implement a different balance of working between the office and home, and for employees to maintain trust levels.
Whilst many media commentators have been fairly positive about remote working, it’s true to say that’s how many of them worked before the lockdown anyway, as writing can be a singular task. What we have missed at Murray Birrell is the collaboration between each other based on simply being in the same place and hearing conversations that take place, the benefits of ad hoc sharing of experiences or passing on a relevant contact. We’ve missed the spontaneous contributions to each other’s projects that don’t happen when those conversations take place in video calls. Also, due to new instructions received, we are hiring two new team members. How new employees would ever recognise and absorb a company culture through remote working alone remains a mystery.