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Is it the end of the office?

by Claire Paramo on 01 Jun 2020

Since the lockdown came into effect back in March, we have been in constant contact with our network, exploring how we continue to best support our clients and candidates, while also sharing valuable insights into the market.

As we start to emerge from the peak of the crisis and lockdown restrictions are relaxed, leadership discussion is moving from a focus on crisis management and decisions on home working, to the future of the office and the workplace and we how we best manage a reintegration.

The BIE team connected a group of FTSE HR leaders via Zoom, to share insights and challenges, and discuss what the future may look like, with a focus on how we do – or do not – return to the office and reinstate furloughed employees back into the business.

Here are some key points from the discussion.

More of us could work flexibly

How we continue to support home working post-Covid – and to what extent – will undoubtedly be a hot topic over the coming weeks and months.

The option to work from home has been steadily increasing in recent years, shifting from a perk to an expectation. The perception amongst some that if you were not at your desk and visible then you were not working has changed almost overnight. Working practices during the Covid-19 lockdown have demonstrated that employees can work successfully in their home environment and it has been proven for more than two months now.

Some senior leaders have seen an increase in productivity, their employees are reporting that communication has improved – with more routes and ways to ask questions and attain responses directly from the top.

Working relationships have improved, as we gain greater insights into our colleagues’ homes and personal set-ups.

With this shift in mindset comes several potential benefits. For those more forward-thinking businesses, this could be an opportunity to cast their recruitment net wider. If a candidate is able to work flexibly and at home, their location and personal situation, for example, will become less relevant. In particular, we may see doors opening for those who find travelling to an office difficult, such as those with disabilities and caring responsibilities.

Already leaders are discussing a step towards more creative shift patterns and a move away from the traditional 9-5 model to more flexible hours.

Several senior leaders have said that, following the pandemic, they will no longer spend more than three days a week in an office-based environment. This could give employees greater flexibility to live where they choose – rather than basing property decisions on proximity to a station.

This change of mindset is a real break-through for those advocating more flexibility at work.

Finding a balance

It is clear, however, that working from home will not be a solution for everyone.

As a number of leaders have pointed out – “We may all be in the same storm, but we are all in different boats”.

After surveying a large number of employees, leaders are finding that while some people are enjoying working from home and the flexibility that brings, others are finding it much harder and are looking forward to a return to the office.

For example, some employees are struggling to get the privacy and quiet required to complete meaningful work at home, while others are missing the interactions that come from a dynamic office. Those outside of Europe, for example, may have poorer technical networks and broadband, making it difficult to work.

And, simply, some roles just can’t be worked from home.

Redesigning the office

With so much discussion around home working, it is unsurprising that the future of the office has been brought into question.

Many leaders do not expect a widespread return to the office until April 2021, with potentially a slight easing up from September 2020 – and many are already making moves to significantly reduce their office space.

The question is: if we can work from home and we can, why do we want to come into the office?

Of course, offices continue to be important for collaboration, socialising with colleagues, teamwork and team building – some leaders are, therefore, looking at more fluid use of building capacity and how they can redesign their office space for this purpose

Some potential changes include, more effective hot desking, improved spaces for collaboration, and drop-in zones where people can meet and connect with each other.

Is change best for business?

Many of us are focused on survival and tactical delivery, and so what is right for us now may not be the same as we emerge from the crisis. Some are predicting another shift post-Covid where people will want to connect and socialise and, subsequently, working from home will lose its appeal. While it may be tempting to save on costs and start selling office space, we need to be wary that the pendulum does not swing too far in the opposite direction.

We also need to be sure that productivity remains high and decisions are not based solely on the needs of the individual but also balanced with business requirements. One leader we spoke to plans to give colleagues the option of returning to an office or working from home. They will then ringfence and benchmark the two groups and measure their activity over a period of time to ascertain the effectiveness and service levels of both groups.

Improving technology

While many businesses have been agile enough to embrace technology to ensure their workforce can work effectively from home in the short-term, some leaders have expressed that for this model to work moving forwards, they will require further tech investment and infrastructure around IT systems. The burden on some IT systems is now coming to the fore as critical and almost falling over. Many businesses will need to prioritise this as we move into the new normal.

Bringing employees back from furlough

As we move forwards, businesses will be forced to look at the roles that are essential and those that are not and decide who they bring back from furlough. For some, employee cuts will have already been on horizon and Covid-19 will accelerate those decisions.

Some leaders have said that an “us and them” culture has emerged – those who have been furloughed and those who have not – which could be a challenging dynamic to manage.

Those furloughed may be questioning why a colleague has remained in the business or has been brought back into the business recently over them. While those who have continued in their roles may be absorbing work and responsibilities from their furloughed colleagues and suffering from, or on their way to, burn-out, which similarly will need to be managed carefully.

Most of the leaders we have spoken to emphasise the spotlight on employee well-being and a shift in focus to the mental health space.

 If you would like to discuss any of the topics raised or are interested in joining one of our events, please do reach out and get in touch with the BIE team.

Claire Paramo

Written by Claire Paramo

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