The COVID-19 Pandemic has forced the office worker to re-evaluate life and the universe. And, for most people, they’ve decided the office is not for them. There’s no surprise in this. We humans have been contemplating our liberation from the confines and constraints of offices, and the commute, for at least three centuries.
But now, in the most worrying and distressing circumstances imaginable, the genie is out of the bottle, the toothpaste has escaped the tube and Elvis has left the building.
The question is then, will people ever return? Do they need to return? What will it take to get them back? What happens if they are lost to their home micro office environments forever?
In April 2020 (and probably now again in October 2020 following Boris’s announcement) the UK saw 46.6% of all people in employment working at home to some extent, with 86% doing so because of the pandemic. More specifically, 57.2% of people living in London worked from home at some point. The pandemic has changed everything in terms of where we work. Organisations now may simply be asking the wrong question of how to get workers back into offices.
YouGov discovered that only 9% of people want work life to return to normal. If they do head back then they are also expecting a new future place of work to emphasise flexibility and make better use of intentional time in the office. They are also assuming the workplace will reflect the freedoms they have discovered in lockdown, such as flexible working hours, casual dress code, more tolerant bosses to name a few.
Now, the challenge for leaders has changed, it is vital the workplace is made relevant, adaptable and productive, so staff can work in the way they want to, not just the way the company wants them to or has historically expected them to.
Armed with evidence of amazing spikes in productivity, a warm liking for the newly found levels of empathy from managers and a long-overdue reconnection with family life, the power over where to work rests firmly with the employee.
The new purpose of the Office
But the role of the physical workplace is not redundant just yet. Offices are far more than just commercial square footage on the balance sheet and big shiny emblems of success that populate sky lines in every major city around the world.
The workplace is, or at least should have been, about human experiences and collaboration. And they still can be. With suitable imagination and investment to change them.
Unfortunately though for the proponents of the workplace, the actual environments themselves have been misused. Offices have become synonymous with the breeding ground of anti-values, the spreading of rumour, the harbouring of poor behaviours and the rock on which careers have been sacrificed.
They have often also been perceived as personal monuments to egotistical and status focused leadership. How consistently well then have our workplaces really served the emotional, wellbeing and development needs of the workforce? Exactly – point made. If they had, we contest that the desire to give them a second chance would be stronger.
So there’s a stark choice. Abandon the monuments and disperse the workforce to their private dwellings. Try and thrash a deal of hybrid fluidity and partial attendance or invest massively in the wholesale gutting and re-design of physical workspaces to facilitate a way of working that should have existed all along.
How these scenarios play out will depend on many factors – far too many to consider and do justice in this article. However, the key to anticipating what is right for each organisation is to examine three discrete dimensions of the business model:
- The inherent profile, attributes, commitments, hopes and mindsets of the workforce
- The inherent characteristics of the actual work that is performed or needed and how they react to changes in proximity of colleague interaction and task fulfilment
- The inherent characteristics, commercials, infrastructure, location, social responsibilities and versatility of the real estate
In essence don’t design your work and workforce around your workplaces. Design your workplaces around your work and workforces.
And this means not necessarily believing all the hype about remote working either. Working from home for such an extended period has given organisations opportunity to learn what helps and what obstructs productivity. According to JLL only 48% of people they surveyed feel more productive at home, despite 77% feeling tech-ready to work remotely.
So, what do Digiworkz see in terms of the future?
The remote working ‘entitlement’ is firmly here to stay because most people have proven they can do most of their work away from the office, saving time, money, and stressful travel. Yet, the office, if re-invented properly, still has purpose.
Whilst working remotely has proven to be somewhat productive, we are increasingly questioning the sustainability of this solution. It may have worked for the last 6 months, but whether it will work for all in the long term is unlikely. There is just some work that is best suited to that common place, that shared environment - that corporate home.
At Digiworkz, we think the change in the workplace must go beyond making sure employees are tech ready to work remotely and in the right place. It must recognise that the current generation of worker was always born to be free. With the shackles off, the vast majority will vote with their feet if there are attempts to put them back on.
Therefore, any future physical workplace needs to beat the home work station, the new found love for the family, the time recovery from the forgotten commute, the financial bonus of the move out to cheaper property areas and the relief of no more office politics. It’s a hard ask, and some would say impossible ask, but organisations must find a way if the right work is going to be done in the right place, in the right way.
On the 8th October we are hosting a panel webinar with Matt Sinnott, Group People & Property Director at Lloyds Banking Group, and Katharine Henley, Partner at PA Consulting. We'll be exploring how companies can be preparing for the workplaces of tomorrow.
1. Cameron, A., (2020) Coronavirus and homeworking in the UK: April 2020. Office for National Statistics
2. Binding, L. (2020) Coronavirus: Only 9% of Britons want life to return to 'normal' once lockdown is over. Sky newshttps://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-only-9-of-britons-want-life-to-return-to-normal-once-lockdown-is-over-11974459
3. JLL (2020) COVID-19 IMPACT: offices will find a new purpose
4. Berry, D., Panneck, C., Doel, J., Campbell, M. (2020) Workplace transformation in the wake of COVID-19 KMPG