The tech sector cannot build back better from the kitchen table

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While technology has supported the lockdown economy by allowing millions to work from home, the in-person collaboration and shared experience on which the tech sector thrives will need to return soon

By

  • Amy French, Level39

Published: 05 Jan 2021

With many parts of the country now facing tighter Covid-19 restrictions – including London and the South East which has entered Tier 4 – many workers remain glued to their kitchen tables without an end in sight. Despite fresh hopes delivered by news of a vaccine, there is little to suggest working from home will be anything other than a lasting fixture for millions.

While following government guidance and remaining safe is the priority, we still need to make the case for bringing Britain’s tech sector back together again when the time is right.

With employees across the UK working in isolation for a year, and perhaps even more, there will be long-lasting effects on both our economy and collective wellbeing. Already after nine months, the novelty of staying away from the office has well and truly worn off for many.

It is becoming clearer that “building back better” while stationed at home is unlikely. Businesses are built upon shared experiences, interactions and learnings. Equally, progress in our most innovative sectors requires serious digital infrastructure that enables the development, communication and application of advanced technologies – not readily available from the home office.

Despite the relative ease in which it jumped into the remote realm, the tech sector is one industry that in the most part is itching to come back together in some form, and with good reason. The entrepreneurs and business leaders I speak with daily warn that creativity is slumping under the weight of endless Zoom calls and being continuously stuck in the confines of one’s own home. The coming together of minds has never felt so important and it’s slowing progress for many firms, with the creation of fresh ideas dwindling.

Recently, I was talking to the founder of CardAlpha, a fast-growth fintech platform, who highlighted how he missed using other founders of startups as critical sounding boards. While Slack and Zoom help to some extent, they cannot replace the face-to-face feedback needed to build scaling tech firms.

Of course, the negative impact of home working is not limited to the economy. The mood of the second lockdown was tangibly removed from the first. Exasperated by the shorter daylight hours and an overall sense of exhaustion, many employees are complaining about an underlying feeling of burnout – and the inescapable groundhog day effect.

Employee wellbeing

Working from home is also impacting employee wellbeing. Across the board, one key takeaway from this year is that offices represent more than just a physical space. There are certainly those who after a year of attempting to work from a crowded kitchen table, or surrounded by loud family members, will be desperate to return to a quiet, dedicated office or workspace and re-draw the lines between work and home life.

But for many, it is not the physical environment of the office they miss, but rather the atmosphere of collaboration, community and spontaneity that can come from working alongside like-minded people. And the positive commercial benefits that follow.

We have worked to maintain this at Level39, the tech community at Canary Wharf, which is home to around 200 tech startups and scaleups. We have offered a hybrid model of working and collaborating throughout the pandemic to ensure our members have the spaces and opportunities they need to innovate and thrive while remaining safe.

Yet, keeping the entrepreneurial spark lit and employee wellbeing intact is not the only issue at stake. The question is often asked that without the commute, isn’t working from home better for the environment?

Environmentally friendly

Back in the spring, there was an overwhelming view that it was. But this winter, lockdown has thrown up a very different set of challenges – not least the unwelcome extra bills associated with  home working.

Research from WSP suggests that individuals working from home produce 2.5 tonnes more carbon per year – 80% above an office worker. This is because heating one’s home over winter produces far more emissions than the average commute. With hundreds of thousands of workers heating separate homes throughout the day, up and down the country, modern offices should be more efficient and environmentally friendly.

The ability to foster innovation and maintain momentum in the virtual sphere is a challenge we are still working to overcome, and while individuals have displayed incredible adaptability across the UK, we have learnt that face-to-face working and communication is irreplaceable.

It is critical that we all follow the government guidance and remain safe – health comes first – but as we look forward and start treading the road to recovery, our places of work, the communities we work within, and the people we work with, will be of vital importance for our innovative industries in kickstarting a new era of growth.

Amy French is the head of Level39.

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