The death of the office?
COVID-19 has shown many organisations that their employees can work productively from home - but it has also highlighted the important role the office plays in workers’ wellbeing.
The pandemic has taught us that ‘work’ is much more than just a physical space. And yet, at the same time, many of the most fundamental changes that lockdown life has brought about for workers stem from the fact that the location of work for millions of people has shifted.
Huge corporations, such as HSBC, have already announced that they will return to work post-COVID-19 with reduced office footprints after realising that many of their staff can work remotely without any notable drop in productivity. At the same time, they have seen the opportunity to reduce overheads by reducing the cost of leasing and operating physical working environments.
This was absolutely a trend for businesses well before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has acted as rocket fuel to accelerate the process.
Nevertheless, the office is unlikely to die off completely. Instead it will metamorphise into something new, leaving organisations with the question of how can they make these spaces work better for both their workers and their customers.
“The office will be a really outdated word because I think what that space has got to do now is fill the gap that people are missing at home,” says Helena Moore, a former director of people experience at housing association Bromford and now an associate director at the Disruptive Innovators Network.
She says that what this means is that offices will be part of a ‘hybrid’ working experience, whereby people work from several locations. Meanwhile, office spaces themselves will transform to serve a more social purpose.
“People are missing the social interaction, they’re missing natters around the water cooler, that sort of thing. So the whole thing around design is really important, and how you create a design that can accommodate quite large numbers of people coming into a space.”
“The office will be a really outdated word because I think what that space has got to do now is fill the gap that people are missing at home.”
Moore adds: “When you look at that whole balance of hybrid and what people are really missing, it’s workspaces that have an unashamed social purpose moving forward for colleagues because it’s that piece that people have said that they’re missing. So if we want people to be happy, healthy and well, what is it we can do to plug those gaps with that space being a part of it?”
Beyond that, the office will need to fill a number of roles: promoting collaboration, informal sharing of information, facilitating induction of new staff and, crucially, a hub that is designed to maintain and develop an organisation’s culture – something that is much harder to deliver in an online environment.
While most workers during the pandemic did want to be Roamers, the number of Fixed workers was determined by both job role and personal circumstances. In other words, wellbeing considerations were given the same weight as business needs.
In addition, Bromford tried to maintain a principle of fairness by wrapping various benefits around the different working styles – for example by introducing coffee cards for Field workers and home office set-up kits for Roamers.
The hybrid – or blended – approach is likely to be taken up by huge numbers of organisations post-pandemic, but there is unlikely to be a ‘one size fits all’ solution. Ajman Ali, group director for neighbourhood and housing at Hackney Council, believes there’s been “a yearning for people to come back into the office, [but] not necessarily 100% of the time”.
Throughout the pandemic, Hackney Council has been carrying out regular staff surveys. Ali says that these show that workers favour a mixed approach, whereby they split their time between home and office on a 60:40 or 70:30 ratio.
Balancing the blend
Even if the majority of workers don’t want to return to the office full time, some are wary that the end of the traditional office set-up could further entrench the use of outsourcing as a way for organisations to cut costs. John Gray, a member of public sector union UNISON’s National Executive Council, says the outsourcing trend is a cause of concern for his members.
“It is really tempting to close offices and get more people working from home. And outsourcing to companies who wouldn't treat their workers as well as traditional local authorities or large housing associations is always a threat when times are tough. But most outsourcing is entirely bogus.”
Gray adds: “The only way it works is because new entrants are taken on on inferior terms or conditions, and that worries me, but the change is dressed up as innovation. They say ‘we're going to move people to a more specialist employer’, but the real cause is cutting pay, cutting pensions and cutting conditions.”
Associate Director, Disruptive Innovators Network
Group Director for Neighbourhood and Housing, Hackney Council
National Executive Council member, UNISON (speaking in a personal capacity)