Back to Life? Back to Reality?

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What is the need to return to the office?

Finally in the UK there is hope that many employees will be returning to offices over the summer after over twelve months of enforced home working.

While we expect to return to the offices of 2020, no one expects a return to the working patterns of 2020. Most have adapted well to higher levels of remote working. A recent survey by workplace specialists Hatch Analytics found that most employees report being able to get work done more easily and feel well supported and part of a team. The most commonly reported benefit of remote working is not having to commute, with the additional benefits of increased productivity and work-life balance.

Fragile support systems

However the pandemic has also shown just how tenuous and fragile the support systems are for working parents. In some communities, as many as 60% of childcare providers have closed, with many unlikely to reopen. Businesses will need to take a good hard look at how they support all working parents to ensure they will be able to return to the office successfully.

The financial benefits for the new working patterns are clear: some companies are already questioning whether they will ever return to offices, and many CFO’s are happily anticipating the cost savings flowing from a reduction in office space of up to 50%.

Impeding the development of young talent

On the other hand a recent survey for the CIPD found that over 70% of under25’s do not have a dedicated room to work from at home and have struggled to connect with colleagues during the pandemic. These young professionals are looking forward to the social and physical benefits of office working. And there are clear benefits for their development as well. Zoom calls cannot replicate the informal exposure to experienced colleagues- these under 25’s have missed seeing good workplace behaviours being role modelled and have missed the chance to see and learn from their managers and more experienced colleagues

It is not just the young professionals who will return to the office and reap the reward of renewed social contact and spontaneous conversations. For all, whether extraverts who yearn for the social contact, or introverts who are dreading it, it’s time to break bread together, mingle with those outside our immediate work groups and renew contacts and relationships across the organisation. Many recent hires will be meeting colleagues in person for the first time.

Using the space creatively

The survey by Hatch Analytics found that over 75% of employees would ideally like to work 2-3 days in the office. Managers should therefore be considering what work should best be done on these office days – there is little benefit to having employees return to the office and then sit in front a screen wearing headphones all day. How can we ensure that this shared time together fosters collaboration and creativity? How can meeting spaces be set up to be safe and stimulating? What training should be given to managers to manage a hybrid, flexible workforce?

Utilisation of these smaller offices can be maximised by setting up online room booking systems to control timing and numbers to restrict those room blockers. The office time should be used for meetings, discussion, training and yes, good old banter around the coffee machine which is such a core of making our work lives fun and rewarding.

We know the new working environment of late 2021 will be different. Lets ensure it is more stimulating and productive for all functions, generations and social styles.

Tony Bainbridge has extensive international HR and organisation transformation experience gained over more than 30 years in a range of sectors including consumer, healthcare, business services, technology and hospitality. He is a co-founder of CEO Whispering, a programme to develop the confidence and credibility of new and inexperienced HR Directors.

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