Before the Covid-19 pandemic, visions of the future included the idea that we would all inhabit ‘megacities’. High-speed, driverless transport would ship us from our small, kitchen-less apartments to state-of-the-art offices in buzzing urban centres.

Convenience would rule, as food and drink on-the-go, or delivered to the desk, would provide the ideal solution to busy urban lifestyles.

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Covid-19 has disrupted that path, showing instead an alternative future. As blue-chip companies get to grips with their workforces logging on from home and requiring greater degrees of flexibility to incorporate family life, how could the office environment evolve?

Flexibility is paramount

Industries that rely on office-based workers are already starting to think seriously about what the work environment might look like in the future. Japanese tech giant Fujitsu announced earlier this year its office footprint in Japan will be reduced to 50% of current levels within three years.

“Approximately 80,000 Japan-based Fujitsu Group employees will begin to primarily work on a remote-basis to achieve a working style that allows them to flexibly use their time according to the contents of their work, business roles, and lifestyle,” the company said at the time.

“Fujitsu anticipates that this will not only improve productivity but also mark a fundamental shift away from the rigid, traditional concept of commuting, leading to enhanced work-life balance.”

Instead of the conventional office, Fujitsu sees a future for a “seamless system” that allows employees to choose the place they want to work, including from home, hub, or satellite offices, depending on the type of work they do.

Covid-19 has had a profound impact on employees in the packaged-food industry, especially in manufacturing, where companies have had to manage the way the virus has rapidly reshaped consumer demand while trying to keep production staff as safe as possible.

Those in white-collar roles, like in other industries, have largely moved to remote working and many companies still have most of their staff in these positions working from home for at least some of the week.

In October, General Mills said employees who can work from home should do so until May 2021 – the end of the US-based company’s fiscal year.

Though the move could be construed as an indication General Mills is set to move away from offices altogether, a spokesperson for the Betty Crocker owner says this is not the case.

“While there is much yet to learn, we know that we will not shift entirely to remote work in the future,” the spokesperson insists. “We believe there is value in employees being together in-person to collaborate and foster a culture of learning, growing, and belonging.”

Looking forward, General Mills expects the majority of its employees will return to the workplace. “Many of us are likely to blend time in the office with personal work time at home,” the spokesperson adds.

It is a similar story at European dairy group Arla Foods, where a spokesperson says current ways of working are likely to span the next three to five years. Although coming back into the office is the future goal, the spokesperson says Arla does “expect to see a more fluid transition between working at the office and working at home going forward”.

Like General Mills, Arla champions the virtues of face-to-face meetings. “Online meetings won’t be able to replace this completely,” the Lurpak butter maker adds.

Cyrille Filott, global strategist for consumer foods at Netherlands-based financial services group Rabobank, predicts for white-collar roles a mix of home and office working will prevail. He describes the future of the office as “a place for meetings”, while the home will be a place for work.

“We might move to a culture that is similar to what’s already happening in tech – weekly milestones or bi-weekly milestones where you meet up to discuss these and then do the work at home,” he says.

A targeted approach to remote working

However, Filott warns companies must pay close attention to each market when developing new working practices. He says some countries have unreliable internet, especially in rural areas, making home-working difficult. He also says smaller companies may not be able to invest in the technology needed to ensure everyone can work remotely.

There are also, Filott says, cultural points to take into consideration. “Working from home involves us working in a household, but the needs of the household [in some markets] may be multi-generational.” A house with children and an older generation may make working from home difficult, he points out.

In the future, tech investment could also make a business – large or small – more attractive to new recruits, believes Filott. If businesses move away from one ‘HQ’-style office to more satellites or create a flexible system, the talent pool will increase. But Filott says that those who fail to offer the right tech may miss out on potential new recruits who don’t want to relocate.

Elsewhere, there may be a temptation to outsource work to cheaper markets. Mark Fairweather, CEO of UK dried foods supplier Whitworths describes “extreme scenarios” where a large organisation may look to give up expensive office space.

That’s not a consideration for Whitworths and Fairweather adds: “As a business, we don’t have that sort of scale,” saying the past few months have shown different departments can work at home while some benefit from being in the office.

Innovation and culture from home?

One of the big questions is how companies can maintain momentum with innovation, including new product development, as well as keep to a strategy and maintain company culture if not everyone is in the same place.

Fairweather says Whitworths’ brands, category insight, innovation and commercial teams can more easily work from home several days a week.

“The real organisational challenge that we’ve got to focus on is making sure that we keep that excitement of brand, innovation, connection with the consumer, first and foremost in our minds and have that energy in the room,” says Fairweather. He adds that Whitworths will work hard to ensure the company is “working as a business collectively, rather than the individual pods”, highlighting a blended approach to office and home working to avoid isolation.

Though Rabobank’s Filott believes innovation will not be impacted, he does say companies will have to manage employee interactions. “I don’t necessarily think it will impact new product development. Perhaps there is some serendipity in people meeting and getting ideas by chatting and companies will need to organise for that differently if the informal element is gone,” he says. “But I don’t think the decision-making process will change that much.”

At General Mills, the pace of change is “challenging us to innovate in new ways across all aspects of our business”, the spokesperson reflects.

Maintaining the pressure to innovate is important throughout the pandemic and beyond. “Our teams are accelerating to come forward with new solutions,” she says. “We’re leaning in to better understand where our customers and consumers are facing problems and in what ways we can be there to solve their problems.”

An opportunity rather than an obstacle

Looking internally, what could the possible changes to where office-based staff work post-coronavirus mean for company culture? Businesses may need to look for ways to create more human connections with employees.

“We will see some changes to corporate culture because of the way people are collaborating and interacting,” says Filott. “To keep everyone on board is more difficult when you don’t see them in person. Therefore, people will come to the office.”

Getting out ahead now, to create a positive – and lasting – working environment in the future is key, according to professional services group Ernst & Young (EY).

In a report, Why remote working will be the new normal, even after Covid-19, EY says remote working is an “opportunity for companies to change their way of working sustainably and reap the benefits over the medium to long term”.

The report highlights less office space, less commuting, fewer business trips, shorter breaks and greater focus for employees. “Remote working on a larger scale also offers companies the flexibility to deal with unexpected events in the future, such as the Covid-19 crisis,” EY adds.

While a blend of home and office working may not seem that radical, companies will need to invest in the right technology now to create more flexible future working environments. They may also want to consider satellite offices or co-working spaces to plug the gap between home and HQ.

At the same time, on the journey to new ways of working, leaders must work hard to create the right culture in the workplaces of the future.