Returning to the Office – When, Who and Why?
How are businesses planning to return to the office? As we alluded to in our last article, over the past 4 weeks I and the rest of the DASH team have been interviewing our network and keeping our ears to the ground to understand how businesses have been adapting around COVID-19. These conversations have involved C-suite executives all the way down to new graduates going through induction remotely, across a wide range of industries and disciplines.
Importantly, throughout these meetings, we have also been asking questions about the future and I’m happy to share some of the learnings and perhaps surprising insights that have come out of this within this article.
As was to be expected, the most common first response here was “in line with government guidelines and advice.” The extended answer from those in senior or leadership positions however, reveals that aside from where returning is a prerequisite to working, there is a definite reluctance to be seen as among the first for fear of negative PR or criticism from employees.
From our sample of approaching 80 interviews, the earliest we have heard as an expected return date is the end of June, with the majority being between mid-September and late November. There are then those who have already communicated to their staff that the office will not reopen before 2021 and at the far reaches of the spectrum, companies such as Twitter who have given employees the option of never returning.
The rationale behind making the decision to communicate that the office will not open until 2021 is as much to do with expectations as to when this will realistically be safe and possible without fear of criticism, as it is about the desire to lift teams out of the limbo in which they currently find themselves. ‘Working from home is the new status quo, it’s here to stay, so make the investment required to make it work for you.’ The aim of this is to ensure that for those who are able to work remotely, they go about it in a way that ensures they are operating productively and crucially; sustainably.
We have also heard that, even within industries, there seems to be a slight difference in attitudes between businesses inside and outside of London, with businesses outside of London looking at earlier return dates than within. Clearly any explanation of this will be multifaceted however some factors which we think are at play here are:
- employees are more likely to drive to work outside of London;
- the average office outside of London has a higher sqft/employee ratio than inside London and therefore social distancing is more easily accommodated; and
- attitudes towards working from home and flexible working pre-Coronavirus were slightly more pro inside of London than out.
Who and Why
With regards to the “Who” we have tried to focus on identifying those that are most eager to see the re-opening of the office. I’m sure many of us will have seen this viral video portraying a humorous stereotype as to who may be filling this role, however, we came across some rather unexpected insights here.
Prior to Coronavirus, the most ardent supporters of working from home and flexible working were the younger tranches of the working population – from our conversations, it is now this very same group who are most looking forward to the return of the office. This goes against much of what we have heard in the media and perhaps popular consensus as a result.
This running counter to our expectations and indeed many of the senior people we have spoken to is in part down to the unintendedly biased viewpoint that is platformed by the media. Interviewees tend to be those in the most senior positions within a company and therefore their answers on working from home are biased by their own experiences. For many people in the early stages of their careers however, working from home has not entailed working in a separate home office or out in the garden, but 9 hours on their beds or crowded around their kitchen table along with 4 flatmates. This reality of what working from home en masse entails is therefore very different to how it was imagined and proving to be quite undesirable for many.
Alongside the practical issues of working from home, we have also heard people missing the social interaction (and post-work drinks), collaboration, and sense of team which accompany working face to face with colleagues. This viewpoint, again most strongly held by the younger cohort, has also been strongly echoed by those; who work in large teams, in leadership positions, and the extroverts who find their energy in others across all rungs of the corporate ladder.
The two other themes which we heard about, fuelling a desire to return to the office, were where the coaching of juniors is a significant part of the job and where individuals were struggling with the lack of delineation between work and home. For those who spend a large part of their time coaching, especially when the subject matters are particularly complex or judgmental, working remotely from teams has been somewhat of a struggle and this is something I can wholeheartedly resonate with. From my own experiences, the best coaches within teams are those who not only know their stuff but are able to read body language to understand when someone is struggling and step in to provide guidance, worked examples, or even an injection of confidence through the reassurance that we’ve all been there. When you are working remotely from each other this is lost and therefore people can struggle for much longer out of fear for asking for help, meaning both the quality of work and efficiency go down.
The lack of any tangible separation between work and home has meant for many that they are working harder than ever before, unable to switch off from work. While many of the HR teams we have spoken to are working hard to address this and reinforce messages telling people its ok to turn off the laptop, some people really value having a dedicated workspace that they can physically and emotionally enter and leave at their choosing.
From this exercise, it is clear that working from home is here to stay for the foreseeable future and that we are likely to see a harmonisation in attitudes post Coronavirus to both flexible working and working from home as a result of it, shifting towards the more adopted end of the spectrum. This being said, I do not see it as the end of the office from everything we have heard as there are too many people who value what it enables. We will however, almost certainly see a lot of thought go into what its purpose is going forwards as the opportunity to reduce overheads is an enticing carrot being dangled.
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