I suppose by now it is safe to say we all more or less agree 2019 was the last of the normal years. At least for a while. We collectively took those precious one or two weeks of vacation at the end of the year to make sure we would be home for the holidays. Blissfully unaware that we’d barely be able to leave our houses for anything more than groceries or a socially distanced walk with friends just 2,5 months later.

If in 2018 the Belgian government reported only 17% of all employees were able to occasionally work from home, that figure tripled to 50% in 2020, and currently still stands at a decent 40% in 2021. Look closely, and you’ll see I’ve made a somewhat crooked comparison: the government’s 2018 numbers are based on a cross-section of all employees established by the researchers (blue collars included, for whom it is notoriously much harder to work from home), whereas the 2020-21 numbers are derived from voluntary responses to a reiterative online questionnaire. [1] One could surmise that the second research tends to favour those with easy access to internet, and the option to fill out questionnaires at will (i.e. those more likely to work from home).

However, another figure seems to support the same conclusion. For years, some supply chain specialists enjoyed entertaining themselves with a simple thought experiment. How much would you have to reduce the current amount of traffic to reduce structural traffic congestion to absolute 0? Some stated 15%, others 30%, and some 20%. Turns out that 20% is the magic number.[2] And it seems as though traffic is remaining at a comfortable low ebb for the time being. [3]

So here we are, dapperly home officing as much as we can (it’s not an official verb in the English language yet, but I personally think it is high time it became one). Besides traffic, the massive sudden shift to home office as a standard  has resulted in a number of additional effects, not all foreseeable. Let us look at a few of those:

  • A large shift in utilities cost from employer to employee, as office workers now use their own energy to power any portable device needed for work (including often energy costly computer screens), relying on their own bandwidth for data transfer, and drinking their own water and coffee. At least for energy, the cost has been estimated to be around 3 EUR per working day for an average employee[4];
  • That massive fleet of company cars we Belgians so proudly drive around each day is now almost permanently parked[5]; currently, not much of a problem, but it could mean a lot of these cars will see their contracts extended, and a lot of these cars suddenly got a bit more expensive due to a tax shift favouring more eco-friendly cars[6]; it remains to be seen whether employees will accept to have to pay more for a benefit they profit from less;[7] And yes, we’ve all seen those first reports that the air was and maybe still is just that much cleaner everywhere
  • With home office now the standard for office employees, suddenly a host of new challenges is rising to the surface; now that the IT infrastructure is in place to support decentralised data traffic, more and more articles appear, alerting us that psychological problems are growing exponentially[8]. Our colleagues may enjoy skipping that morning commute, but with it comes a growing estrangement from each other, which no forced zoom-call cocktail hour can replace. With it also comes a sense of loneliness and isolation, stress, anxiety, fading boundaries between work and private life. Though arguably, these had already been the findings of studies done over 15 years ago[9]

Home office is here to stay. I strongly doubt many people will be happy to spend between 3 and 4 hours a day in their company car just to get to work each day. It seems safe to say that is definitely a thing of the past (and personally, yay, I never really got that; why waste all that time of your life to go do something that none of us plan to do forever? I’ve always been a strong believer in avoiding rush hour at all costs).

So that could mean, if the above is taken into account:

  • Fewer employees occupying all those massive swathes of office space all over Belgium; this means reduced floor space, desks, savings on energy and facilities all around, at least for the employer;
  • As there will be less of a need for company cars to be the one benefit in kind to rule them all in Belgium, maybe a shift to other modes of transport, long over-due, can now start taking shape (transport as a service, rather than a private commodity)
  • Not everyone will happily go back to the office on a recurring basis, but most people do miss the distance between home and office, the social contact, the watercooler talk or maybe just the time away from the kids.

I promised no answers, only questions. So to conclude, let me throw 5 questions at you. The answers will not be easy, and you might not be able to fully answer them yourself, but they might help you form a better picture of the world you and your colleagues want to create once things get closer to the normal of 2019:

  • Given that home office is here to stay, how much home office are you as a team comfortable with?
    • Is this as everyone sees fit? Is it a fixed percentage of home office for everyone? Do you choose the inverse, i.e. a minimum attendance at the office?
    • Do you prefer home office in full days, or is it perfectly OK for someone to work from home for a few hours, spend a few hours at the office, and maybe leave early again and resume work from home?
  • If fewer people spend fewer hours together at the office, what will you do with all that empty space?
    • Everyone gets to keep their own personalised desk, so nothing changes (and do not underestimate the importance a lot of people still – justly?- attribute to a personalised workspace)?
    • Reduce desk space, and replace it with cool stuff that makes it fun to come into the office (gym, day-care, games room, lounge, mosh-pit, spa, …)?
    • Give up the office space, reduce costs and reinvest money elsewhere?
  • Now that daily commutes are a thing of the past, how will you enable that commute?
    • Do you retain the Belgian tradition of company cars for all? Or do you replace them with a budget?
    • How will you handle public transport, now that full time subscription plans are more expensive than other options?
    • Will you decide what transport is available for each employee, or leave free choice?
  • How will you handle the physical well-being of your employees so often so far away from the office?
    • To each his own and let them provide the office materials they can afford, maybe with a reimbursement?
    • Will you introduce reimbursement for home office, or consider it a free choice (and keep in mind the complexity of administration depending your answers to the first question)
    • Will you standardise the home office equipment for everyone, or provide budgets with the money you save in office space?
  • How will you monitor the psychological well-being of your employees in this new world?
    • Will you invest in changing leadership skills and culture to accommodate this new world?
    • Will you set up additional support structures and facilities to gauge well-being, or will you let employees take initiative when needed?

The floor is yours, especially now that it has been so empty for so long. So what will you do?

[1] https://mobilit.belgium.be/nl/resource/kerncijfers_telewerk


[2] https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/nl/2020/06/23/geen-ochtend-en-avondfiles-meer-als-we-met-de-auto-en-vrachtwag/

[3] https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/nl/2020/09/13/tot-midden-2021-minder-files-op-de-weg-en-dit-is-waarom/

[4] https://www.mijnenergie.be/blog/hoeveel-kost-thuiswerken-in-herfst-en-winter-aan-verwarmingskosten/

[5] https://www.tijd.be/netto/auto/wat-met-uw-bedrijfswagen-in-coronatijden/10220596.html

[6] https://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20210101_97685524

[7] The same effect is noticeable in public transport subscriptions. Though I have no data to support this, I hear several larger companies have terminated full time subscriptions as these are currently more costly than the occasional single ticket.

[8] https://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20201027_97986293 or https://www.partena-professional.be/nl/nieuws/burn-out-en-thuiswerk-thuiswerken-dan-toch-niet-zo-goed-tegen-stress

[9] Sandi Mann and Lynn Holdsworth: The psychological impact of teleworking: stress, emotions and health, in New Technology, Work and Employment, October 2003.