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Is ‘just another day at the office’ a thing of the past?

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Over the past few months, office workers across the UK have been forced to completely change their working pattern by setting themselves up to operate from home.

For many, there have been the additional challenges of managing working space around other home workers and minding children but most of us – and many employers – are now used to the situation.  In fact, some have even gone so far as to question whether a return to the office makes economic sense. With Barclays CEO, Jess Staley suggesting that packed office blocks may have had their day: “The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past.”

But a suitable crisis response does not necessarily have longevity. And the traditional office set-up has faced down challenges before – from the rise of the gig economy to, ironically, the increased popularity of working from home which led to hotdesking and shared office spaces.  So, will the office escape unscathed once more?  Let’s consider how office and home working compare:

Creativity

Bumping into co-workers, chatting at the coffee machine and sitting down over lunch lead to dozens of interactions every day. The result, shown both anecdotally and statistically, is more creativity and greater effectiveness.  And whilst Zoom and the like have enabled many of us to stay connected, work collaboratively and maintain productivity, the stop/start nature of the interaction is not quite as conducive to working up a creative idea.  Certainly, creative brainstorming via technology platforms is a different skill to face to face collaboration.

Productivity

Whether employees are more productive in the office or at home will be entirely job and person dependent.  A study of 273 remote workers from a range of functions at one organisation, found that employees whose jobs were highly complex but did not require significant collaboration performed better when working from home than in the office.

Separating work and play

In an office situation, it’s very apparent who is ‘at work’ and when.  Lunch breaks and even commuting can provide respite from our workload.  Plus, the end of the working day is usually clearly signposted.  When it comes to working from home, some studies have found that employees work more hours than traditional office workers, and report being less distracted and having fewer interruptions- resulting in greater ability to focus.

But remote working drawbacks can include social and professional isolation, fewer opportunities for information sharing and a blurring of boundaries between work and personal life.

Infrastructure

The office is set up for working.  From desks, chairs and screens at the right height to internet access, printers and copiers.  These are the employer’s responsibility to provide and maintain. But this enforced period of home working has effectively passed responsibility (and potentially cost) for these to the employee.  Or perhaps employees have changed their working styles to forgo these resources, which can be challenging.

On the plus side, not having to be within a commutable distance of the office potentially affords home workers more choice over where they live.  And that could have significant financial implications for those currently working in major cities.

Socialisation

Conversations around the water cooler and in the kitchen are an important part of daily office life, no matter what the topic.  As are birthday celebrations, team meetings and after work get togethers. They help to build and cement our working relationships.

Working remotely can create challenges in finding ways to foster organisational embeddedness – a powerful tool for keeping employees with an organisation.  So, employers may need to get creative with their team building to allow remote workers to feel connected and encourage office-based workers to consider their remote colleagues when it comes to socialisation.

But, as we’ve found during lockdown, many team-building activities (lunches, celebrations, quizzes) can be translated to a virtual environment if the participants are willing and there is huge value to scheduling time to chat at the beginning and/or end of online meetings.

The shape of work after lockdown

As restrictions ease, it will be interesting to see how the ‘workplace’ emerges – which changes ‘stick’ and where we revert to old habits.

We wrote recently about the importance of respecting the psychological contract in lockdown.  This will be equally important going forwards but the potential for breaking it will look very different.  For example, companies that were previously reluctant to allow remote working may need to change their approach.

Employees have shown great adaptability during this crisis and to ask them to abandon that model could come across as a lack of trust.  Plus, according to a recent survey, 91% of the UK working population would like to have the option of working from home.

But clearly, it is not feasible to offer all employees in every organisation and job type the opportunity to work remotely.  And deciding who can and cannot work from home can be a challenge that could lead to perceptions of unfairness if handled incorrectly.  So, it will be imperative to have a clear set of criteria for making these decisions.

There is undoubtedly still value in having some balance between office and home working.  But what the first half of 2020 has perhaps shown is the art of the possible.  When we had no alternative, we made things work remotely.  And there are undoubtedly positives to take from that in terms of creativity and innovation.  But perhaps most importantly, in terms of flexibility.  So, whilst there’s definitely still life in the office environment, the frequency with which we go there and the extent to which we operate from home are likely to have changed forever.

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