As humans, our ability to adapt to a diverse range of environments is one of our greatest assets. We’ve proven this time and time again throughout the course of history, and the Covid-19 pandemic is no exception. Millions of workers across the UK have now successfully transitioned from office working to working from home, almost overnight, learning new skills and overcoming all kinds of obstacles.
During the past 3 months, much of the angst from employers about productivity levels or communication issues has been quashed. Supported by increasingly sophisticated technology, worker productivity during lockdown has risen by as much as 47% according to some surveys. As a result of our own success, we now have an opportunity to reimagine the way we work. Lockdown will become the prototype for new workplace models that support and empower the modern-day worker.
What happens next is the subject of much speculation. Will companies scrap their real estate altogether or will they opt for something smaller and more flexible? How will companies continue to support their staff as new working conditions bring additional pressures and challenges? Whatever the answer, companies need to be thinking about this now. Any procrastination could prove costly.
To help businesses navigate the changing landscape of the workplace environment, we explore some of the possible outcomes for office-based workers in the UK and the implications these may have on the role of the employer.
The evolution of the office
3 months in and the dust is beginning to settle. After the initial adrenaline surge, many companies are now taking stock of their situation and using this time to examine their office space. Do they really need as much space as they’re currently paying for? If their employees can successfully work from home and are happy to do so, the answer to this is ‘probably not’.
For the time being, we’re likely to see most office-based companies continue to operate with remote teams. Pandemic-proofing an office requires significant investment and there’s a hesitation from companies to spend money on grand-scale design solutions, as any changes may be rendered useless as we continue to learn more about Covid-19 or if a vaccine is found.
But what will happen to the ‘traditional’ office the long term? Well, it’s been suggested that the traditional office could take on a more fluid role - a space for collaboration and innovation, rather than admin tasks which could continue to be carried out at home. In this scenario, the office will remain the HQ, a hub where physical meetings and projects can be carried out, and where clients and employees can go when they need somewhere to sit down and chat.
Another suggested outcome would see companies ditching the central office hub for smaller regional offices, closer to where staff live. This would involve clustering employees into groups and creating a more convenient working environment that allows them to avoid long commutes.
There are also those who believe that while demand for real estate may dip in the short term, ultimately the pendulum will swing in the other direction and we’ll all end up back in the office before long. People who support the return to the office often cite the loss of workplace culture as a reason to avoid remote teams. Without a physical space to work in, it’s harder to cultivate the community spirit and sense of shared purpose that drives successful teams.
The likelihood is that most office-based workers are unlikely to go back to a 5-day working week in the office. From a purely environmental point of view, it’s hard to justify asking your employees to commute to work every day again – especially now we’re seeing increasing amounts of pressure on the government to ensure economic stimulus plans are environmentally sustainable. Large companies like Twitter and Facebook have already given many employees the option to work from home permanently. And where the trendsetters go, others will surely follow.
The ‘new-age’ employer
Regardless of the outcome, the role of the employer must evolve to support the changing needs of the employee. Employers must continue to be sensitive to individual circumstances, for example those in the high-risk category or those with care responsibilities. Employers who get this wrong will suffer in their ability to attract and retain talent, both now and well into the future.
Therefore, where possible, employers should try to give their staff the freedom to make their own decision about coming back to office. Workplace studies have shown that as many as 3/4 of workers want the choice to work from home after lockdown. An early consultation will give you a good indication of who wants to come back and whose circumstances may have changed.
Staff wellbeing should also be at the top of every employer’s list, both now and in the future. It’s important to have robust support systems in place for those who are anxious about returning to work. The thought of entering a new environment where you have little control over safety and hygiene can be nerve-racking, so employers need to go out of the way to address any concerns. On top of this, we’re now facing an economic recession, so feelings of stress and anxiety are likely to be heightened during this time. Remember, so much of the pressure that employees face often goes unseen, so it’s essential that employers invest time and effort in creating an open and honest workplace environment where staff feel safe to talk about their problems.
Personal development and progression will also require renewed focus. Home workers can feel overlooked for promotions and opportunities so employees may want to get back to the office to feel more ‘visible’ and back on the radar of management. This could be eased with effective leadership. Virtual teams will need more proactive nurturing because face-to face contact time is more limited than in a physical shared space, therefore it takes longer for issues to emerge. Teams need extra clarification on what’s expected of them, how communication will work, what their accountabilities are and any personal development opportunities.
Finally, workplace culture will continue to be a critical aspect of any team, whether they’re working remotely or not. The office gives many workers a sense of identity and camaraderie, with people bonding over a shared set of goals. It also keeps people in a routine. Employers need to ensure that their employees still have ways of maintaining social interaction, be that through regular meet ups or video conference parties.
With change comes opportunity
Much like people, successful companies are the ones that can respond quickly and positively to a change in circumstances. No matter how big or small, or how well established, every organisation should now be looking to reinvent themselves in a way that aligns with its workers’ needs. Failure to do risks damage to your brand and the possibility of an out-of-date workplace that no longer attracts the best talent in a future workforce.
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