Lockdown was enforced in the UK in late March 2020 and with it brought radical changes to the daily routine of most office workers overnight. Working from home – previously a luxury only offered by the most flexible employers – instantly became a necessity. This forced the entire country into an experiment; just how would the nation’s office workers – and the businesses they work for – cope with such an unprecedented situation? Six months on, this experiment appears to have largely been a success. Many reports indicate that productivity has risen thanks to remote working. Additionally, workers appear largely happy with the new normal, with only 10% of office workers in the UK keen to go back to the office. So how was this possible? What innovations have helped businesses operate remotely? And how might innovation help get us back into the office?
Video conferencing software is hardly something new. Skype has been around for 17 years, allowing anyone with an internet connection to make free video calls around the world. However, by March 2020, the market had become a lot more crowded. Relative newcomers Zoom (launched in 2011), Google Hangouts (launched in 2013) and Microsoft Teams (launched in 2017) have all grown in popularity in recent years, and have a decent market share of their own. Without these programmes all existing within the market and pushing each other to innovate and improve over the last decade, it’s fanciful to think that it would’ve been an easy transition into working from home.
Take a moment to wonder how you’d be able to do your job from home without having access to video conferencing software. My guess is that it’d be possible, but that the initial learning curve would be steep, having a devastating impact on productivity. Instead, right from the first minute of the first day of lockdown, businesses had access to software that allowed them to text chat, video call, share files, and have meetings – all remotely from their own homes. This is a superb example of the real life impacts of innovation. Without it, many businesses would have struggled during the early weeks of working from home.
While video conferencing software has been a lifesaver for many businesses, it has its flaws. Learning when to mute and unmute your microphone is a skill many people still haven’t learned six months on. Whether or not you can hear what’s going on in a meeting is entirely dependent on the strength of your WifFi – which can take a nosedive if your housemates or partner are speaking to their colleagues at the same time.
However, the biggest drawback is probably the format, and how vastly different it is to a face to face meeting. When you’re in a virtual meeting, the grid format that everyone’s camera feed appears in is quite unnatural. In a normal meeting, people are sat around in a room, a layout that standard video conferencing software cannot recreate. However, thanks to VR technology, which provides a fully 3D space for users to interact with, many innovative pieces of software have been developed that allow virtual meetings in full 3D. Just look at MeetinVR, which allows colleagues to interact with each other in the same ways that they would in the office, but in a virtual space. If remote working is to be the way forward for the foreseeable, innovations like this will be revolutionary.
While many professionals have reported that not having to commute is a major positive aspect of working from home, a lack of regular exercise has become a problem for many. Until very recently, gyms had been closed for months, cutting off many people’s access to exercise, unless they fancied going for a run. Dashing for the bus each morning or walking to the train station is in itself a form of light exercise – one that didn’t exist in lockdown – so how was this replaced in lockdown? Products like the Officiser, created by South Korean company Ssitiel, help people to exercise while sitting at their desk. These kinds of innovations help to keep office workers’ physical and mental health sharp, which in turn boosts their productivity.
Many businesses are now offering some staff the opportunity to return to the office if they feel comfortable doing so. This throws up the possibility that some staff could be working in the office while others work remotely. How would this work in practice? Enter Beam – a product developed by Californian company Suitable Tech. Beam consists of a monitor on a stand, with wheels on the bottom. Staff members can dial in so that their face is showing on the monitor, and not only attend meetings, but navigate around the office and speak to their colleagues as well.
In New York, office real estate company RXR Realty is pulling out all the stops, investing in a variety of tech innovations to ensure that its buildings are as safe as possible. They have invested in a GPS tracking system that alerts employees when they breach social distancing rules by standing next to one another, as well as installing plexiglass screens, and thermal scanners that will bar anyone from entering if they have a high temperature. These kinds of innovations are going to become commonplace as the world begins to get moving again, and no doubt there are many exciting innovations yet to be created that will make office working safer.
R&D and innovation exist to turn problems into solutions, and in 2020 humanity faces challenges it hasn’t faced on such a large scale since the end of the Second World War. With almost a century of technological advances under our belt since then, we are better placed to rise to the challenges we face. Technological innovation has allowed us to remain motivated and productive through the pandemic. It will also help us through the next chapter of our lives, whatever challenges that may bring.
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