The daffodils are out and lockdown is lifting. After a long, godawful winter it’s time for celebration and optimism. For business, the relaxation of travel and social distancing rules means a return to normality. Many leaders have instructed their HR, tech and ops teams to draw up plans for bringing people back to the office.
But do employees want to go back? What’s the best way to do it? Is it even in companies’ interests? These are the questions on everyone’s mind right now.
As a cloud communications pioneer we’ve helped lots of companies do their best work anytime, anywhere. We’ve spent the last 12 months analysing the remote working habits of companies around the world. Here are some practical pointers for those tasked with ensuring a smooth return to the office.
Employees have always liked the idea of flexible working. They’d be able to ditch the commute and work wherever and whenever suited them. Quality of life would go up, especially for parents and carers. The problem was that only a select few had access to it.
Covid changed the game by forcing the vast majority of office workers to go remote. A year on, employees like it more than ever. 97% say they want to continue this way, at least some of the time, for the rest of their career. A recent survey showed that half of UK workers would even quit their jobs if flexible working was removed.
2020 also proved that flexibility does not come at the expense of productivity. Businesses which had dragged their feet have taken note. Only 16% say their company will not allow remote work when we come out of lockdown.
Most large enterprises, already edging in this direction, have sped up their plans. HSBC is cutting its office space by 40 per cent, BT downsizing from 300 to 30 offices.
Change is coming, and many say it’s long overdue. Most office design takes as its cue the open plan, set up that’s been in vogue since the industrial revolution. We need a new way of working that’s more conducive to the knowledge economy most British businesses operate in.
Let’s get one thing straight: the office still has a lot going for it. For example, there’s new evidence that shows it’s good for your work-life balance. When Buffer asked people what they struggled with when working remotely during the pandemic, the most popular response was ‘not being able to unplug’.
Most of us can relate to that. With nine-to-five Teams meets and business done from the bedroom, kitchen or living room, the line between work and home life has never been more blurred. A lot of people miss that feeling of leaving work behind when they walk out of the office.
Perhaps the main limitation of working from home is the lack of human contact. This can have a bearing on people’s mental health, especially if you live alone. But perhaps a more immediate business concern is the effect on collaboration and communication.
41% said the way they work with colleagues has been the biggest change brought about by going remote. More than 1 in 6 said an inability to collaborate and communication was their biggest struggle.
This is a big deal for business leaders. The CEO Goldman Sachs has described working from home as damaging to the company culture and “an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible”.
That said, the genie is out of the bottle. There’s no going back to pre-pandemic norms.
So how do business planners combine remote and office working into a cohesive strategy? Here are five pointers.
When it comes to doing good work, one size does not fit all. A space that works for the marketing department is unlikely to excite a team of engineers. HR needs privacy while sales revels in loud, open environments.
If you need deep focus to, say, write an article or analyse numbers, sitting at a desk in an open plan office is not the place to be. This is when you want to be able to work from home or, if you need to dodge kids or annoying flatmates, in dedicated, isolated pods designed for concentration.
Other times, a task may require the kind of creative tension that solves intractable problems. How can you use space, tech and tools to bring people together and make brainstorms more productive?
Some people are early starters, their best work done before breakfast. Others are night owls, dawdling through the day before lighting up at nightfall. The office of the future will allow people to start early and finish late, with catering and other support services on hand throughout.
The potential productivity gains outweigh any logistical challenges. Many tech companies with teams distributed across time zones have already found ways to cope. By agreeing a certain chunk of time when everyone must be available to collaborate, for example, they free up the rest of the day for individuals to use as they see fit.
Some mistake flexible working for putting employees’ interests ahead of the company and its shareholders. In fact, it serves both sides. Happy workers are more productive, give more discretionary effort and don’t churn, thereby reducing recruitment costs.
But it’s also important that the balance of power doesn’t swing too far in favour of the employee. Flexible working does not mean carte blanche for me to do what I want, when I want, if I want.
A return to the office might mean coming in just a few days a week. But what if everyone wants to work from home on Mondays and Fridays? There may be an important reason why that can’t happen. If so, both employee and employer will need to find room for compromise.
We’re not talking about turning the office into some kind of kids-club for adults. Too many companies relied on ping-pong, PlayStation and pizza to entice talent. Zany statues or artwork in reception don’t necessarily create the right impression. And no amount of beanbags and skittles can rescue a brainstorm if people aren’t in the mood.
Instead, consider what employees truly want from an office. Maybe it’s staggered hours of business so they can avoid the rush-hour commute. Perhaps it’s a symbolic water-cooler where people can stick up random ideas on post-it notes. Or maybe they want more all-hands meetings with breakout groups before and after. One thing’s for sure – you won’t know until you ask them.
The tools to maintain productivity, communication and collaboration are there. It’s the way companies manage them that needs to change.
The use of channels, chat, voice and video evolved organically based on the needs and foibles of individuals, teams and departments. That was a useful sticking plaster during Covid but it’s time to apply a bit of strategic, consistent thinking.
IT leaders should survey staff to see what worked best during lockdown and roll it out across the organisation. (If you’d like help with this, get in touch!)
Most employees like flexible working. The same people also can’t wait to get back to the office. This isn’t a contradiction. Humans are social animals who crave interaction in real life, but they also appreciate the benefits of working away from each other at least some of the time.
Covid forced flexible working on those companies that hadn’t yet seen its benefits. Business leaders have an opportunity now to build on what they’ve learned. In all likelihood, we will see that employees are most productive when empowered to work when and where suits them and the task at hand.
Well, we’ve been helping businesses create flexible, better designed, task-based office spaces for years. Since the pandemic, we’ve been helping businesses operate 100% remotely. And now we’re helping customers to bring these two worlds together and establish modern workplace strategies. If you’re trying to devise a longer-term strategy for your business, get in touch and let’s have a chat.