Director’s Comment: Back to the Office?

The reality of getting back to the office

It’s been a year unlike any other we have experienced; words like lock-down, social distancing and 2-meter rule have featured heavily in our vocabulary and we have all learnt to live in a ‘new world’. But what was initially a time of discovery and camaraderie, seeing the world through new eyes and experiencing new sounds, sights and smells has given way to facing up to a future that is very far removed from the norm, but needs us to try and resume a sense of normality and reality over how we live, work and play in 2020.

The reality of remote working

For many of us, this has meant getting back to work, or going back to our place of work. Whilst working from home was for many a chance to embrace a way of working they had long desired, there are some of us for which the novelty has worn off and the reality of being isolated from colleagues, juggling home-schooling and virtual meetings and trying to separate home life and work life has truly sunk in.

Research and surveys of the working population have discovered that there is a clear divide amongst the generations over who has embraced home working and who is craving a return to their office environment. But one thing is clear across all generations, while Corona-virus lingers on, the traditional Monday-Friday 9-5 in the office is a thing of the past.

Younger people have felt isolated and cut off from the world, craving the social interaction that the office environment gives them. The majority live alone, often in small apartments with no ability to separate their working environment from their living environment. For older generations, many live with their partners and family, relishing in the ability to spend more time with their loved ones and not feeling the pressure to get organised and out the door early in the morning so they can commute to the office. They often live in bigger houses where there is an ability to separate where they work and where they live. This generation gets their social interaction from their immediate families and has not felt as isolated or ‘cut off’ as many younger people have.

How has a return to the office looked?

This has varied widely between businesses. For many though, it has meant that only a skeleton staff have been able to return to the office so that social distancing can be adhered to and start and finish times are staggered so that fewer people are commuting all at the same time. Offices have initiated one way systems, limited the numbers allowed in kitchen areas and toilets, temperature checks are being carried out on arrival and sanitising stations and additional cleaning equipment provided.

But despite all the measures organisations are putting in place, UK workers are still the most reluctant to return to office life in Europe, primarily because of the fear of catching the virus. The UK has suffered the most devastating death toll from Corona-virus, not just compared to other European countries, but worldwide. Talk of a ‘second wave’ appears to be driving our reluctance to return. It is very similar to tearing off a plaster; you know you have to do it, but you also know it’s going to hurt. Once it’s off, it’s actually not that bad, and that seems to be the opinion of many of those who have made that leap of faith and stepped foot back into the workplace.

Are we losing productivity through remote working?

This seems to vary from one industry sector to another. Although statistically, individual output may have increased, creativity and collaboration have suffered. It has been proven that physical interaction with our colleagues and the social accountability this brings, boosts productivity and can spark creativity, all of which are impossible to replicate in a ‘virtual’ world. Many Gen Z and Millennial workers are failing to see how their input whilst working remotely is contributing to company goals and don’t feel ‘connected’, leaving them unable to produce their best work.

What is the future of the office in the UK?

For the immediate future, it is not anticipated that there will be a mass exodus back to the office. While we wait for either a vaccine or a more effective treatment for Corona-virus, we all need to be careful about how we interact with those outside of our immediate families, meaning that a full return of all UK workers to the office is impractical and has the potential to spark a steep rise in cases.

Many organisations see flexible working as part of their future above and beyond the pandemic. In fact, in every survey, report and white paper we have found on the topic, it suggests that there is no generational divide when it comes to people’s desire for a more flexible work/life balance arrangement with their employer. Being part of a team is an important aspect of business and how people work and there is a very high percentage of UK workers who want to be back in their office environment, but not every day. Employers have seen how easily their workforce has adapted to remote working and despite initial investments in technology, there is a financial benefit to having a more streamlined office environment and a mix of home and office working.

Will this mean the office environment becomes a thing of the past? No, we don’t think so. But how people work and the office space they occupy will change. Flexible office space will become more desirable for businesses rather than committing to long term leases. The one thing that coronavirus has probably brought to us all, employers and employees alike, is the evolution from a rigid concept to one of fluidity, freedom and choice.