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COVID-19 is accelerating our working landscape

Opinion

Published by:

20 March 2020

Author: Adam Steel

Image: Collaborative workplace AR by Spatial

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The fallout from Covid-19 has transformed not only how people work in the UK but where, marking a major turning point for how organisations operate.

As society shifts to contain the spread of Covid-19, consumers are being forced to reconsider how they live, play and work. Regarding the latter, remote working policies are being ironed out and implemented en masse by UK brands and businesses, with webcams replacing the water cooler as the place to check in with colleagues.

But while this shift is assumed temporary, really it shouldn’t be. As Matt Mullenweg, chief executive of Automattic, parent company of WordPress and Tumblr, says: ‘Millions of people will get the chance to experience days without long commutes, or the harsh inflexibility of not being able to stay close to home when a family member is sick. This might be a chance for a great reset in terms of how we work.’

At a time when research from Owl Labs states that more than a third of workers are willing to take a pay cut in exchange for the option to work remotely at least some of the time, Covid-19 is accelerating the adoption of emergent remote working behaviours and structures.

But before this flexible future can be realised – and before immersive virtual meeting rooms and haptic handshakes become the norm for all – the digital divide between urban areas and the rest of the UK must be bridged.

For every company seamlessly pivoting to remote working policies, others are experiencing snags, especially where local connectivity is concerned. In rural areas of the UK, where the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee says the digital divide has already marginalised communities and hindered businesses, remote working seems near impossible.

5G RuralFirst, UK
'New business attitudes fast-tracked by Covid-19 will challenge the idea of cities as strongholds of economic activity'

Fortunately, solutions are on the horizon. Initiatives like the UK government’s Rural Connected Communities competition – £30m ($34m, €32m) worth of funding to ensure the benefits of 5G connectivity reach countryside communities – will ensure economic activity can thrive anywhere.

The Prince’s Countryside Fund’s Digital Villages project is exploring how technologies can be harnessed to attract businesses to rural areas and bolster local economies. Should these initiatives prove successful, and new business attitudes fast-tracked by Covid-19 take hold, the idea of cities as strongholds of economic activity will be challenged.

Instead, firms will thrive outside of cities. New business hotspots will form. Take the Silicon Fen – the area around Cambridge in the UK, which has become home to a cluster of high-tech firms focusing on software, electronics and biotechnology. Elsewhere, green-collar communities are primed to emerge in coastal towns home to renewable energy businesses.

For brands, unlocking the digital potential of rural areas in the UK alone could add up to £26bn ($29bn, €28bn) to the economy annually, according to Rural England.

It could also bring a vital reboot to regions that have suffered brain drain into urban areas, and is a development likely to appeal to wellness-focused Generation Z and Millennial workers, who are beginning to shun fast-moving, crowded and polluted urban living for the decelerated pace of the countryside. In fact, the average age of people moving from London to the countryside fell below 40 for the first time last year, according to the Hamptons International.

While it might require a global crisis for people to step back and consider how, why and where they work – and crucially what they want from their professional lives – it’s fuelling business transformation like never before. As Arlin Tao, senior director at design studio IDEO, says: ‘The only thing that most people agree on is when things go back to normal, it’s not going to be the normal that we were used to before.’

For more on the changing attitudes and innovations that will shape the future of work, explore our dedicated vertical.

Look out for our full research series where we explore how brands can navigate COVID-19 - launching on LS:N Global next week.

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