The office is dead, long live the office!
Updated: Nov 10, 2021
When to return, how to return...these are the questions that most organisations are currently grappling with. Should we encourage or indeed compel our colleagues back to the workplace and if so when and how? What should the role of government and policy makers be, if any? President Biden has been very clear in his message and sentiment, in wanting workers to get vaccinated and return to the office ASAP.
As a long-time ardent practitioner of scenario planning, I don't believe there is a single, pre-determined future of office work but rather there are a number of variables and uncertainties that potentially shape what is to come. Before making / revisiting your own plans, there a series of both operational and strategic issues / dilemmas to consider:
1. Workplace At the most basic operational level, is it safe? Perhaps more importantly, can you convince your colleagues it is safe? While the onerous social distancing requirements formally ended in the UK on July 19th, employee expectations have not been so binary. Organisations have continued to make significant investments in what they believe is the right thing to do and what will hopefully encourage their employees to believe it is safe to return. Most companies I have spoken to can't provide the capacity for all office workers to return at the same time. Therefore, "shifts" have been organised to accommodate a more flexible work pattern, with different "teams" of employees coming in on alternate / designated days. Hot-desking has taken on a new meaning. "Yes" to shared space (deep-cleaned overnight), "no" to shared resources (computers, screens, keyboard, mice etc.). Another approach has been to bring the work closer to the employees, while still winkling them out of their spare bedrooms and home offices. The so called "hub and spoke model" has been championed by the likes of WeWork. This is a business that has sought to revive its fortunes, by not only cutting costs and removing the excesses of the founding management team, but also by being more agile in responding to changes in customer demand. Mastercard, TikTok-owner ByteDance, Microsoft and Citigroup are among the companies that signed new lease agreements with WeWork since the pandemic. Latest efforts to win back workers include renting space and desks by the day and in some cases, by the hour. Wednesday and Thursday apparently are the most popular days. However, the challenges remain, WeWork lost $923m in the second quarter of the year with revenue falling by a third to $593m.
2. Commute This is proving to be a significant factor in determining the rate at which workers are returning to the office. By comparing London with different regional cities in the UK, the Financial Times drew a compelling correlation with the number of commuters returning (low in London) with percentage of journeys dependent upon public transport (high in London c. 80%). As you can see from the chart below, there is a significant skew in favour of both regional and smaller cities. Not good news for larger city centre economies and businesses dependent upon commuter footfall and custom. At a very human level, these numbers are not hard to understand. "The commute" is the least favourite part of many people's day. Factor in expensive, over-crowded and unreliable public transport, packed with, well, the public and one can sympathise. Anecdotally, I know some private equity houses and law firms are offering to pay for their prized employees to return to the office via taxi. Yet another reason there seems to be more cars than pedestrians in central London at the moment. The issue remains however, if you want your people back in an office, making it relatively painless (and safe) for them to get there needs to be factored in.
3. Duration The phrase the "new normal" is horribly over-used. However, might what we have witnessed over the last 18 months in response to a crisis, become a permanent structural change in the way we work? Many of my clients have told me that COVID-19 has accelerated a digital transformation of their organisations that many thought would take years, but has actually been achieved in a matter of weeks. In setting policy and determining new ways of working, leaders need to be very conscious that they are potentially permanently changing the very nature of their organisations, not just reacting to a temporary crisis.
How long the coronavirus will continue to dominate the global economy is deeply uncertain. How quickly with vaccines be widely available in all countries across the world, rich and poor? How effective will they be against new variants? We will need constant boosters to keep communities protected? Thinking through and planning for different contingencies (or scenarios!) is key.
If there has been a positive upside surprise during the coronavirus crisis, then the productivity of remote office working has been it. Given the huge disruption that virtuallly all businesses have faced, it has been truly astonishing how productive most workers have been. Some even claim to be more productive when working from home. Last year, BCG released a report based on surveying 12,000 professionals across the US, Germany and India, exploring their attitudes to remote working. The chart below clearly shows that while many have maintained their personal productivity, fewer have done so on collaborative tasks. "Zoom-fatigue" has become common parlance. The ability to sustain a response beyond crisis-mode to every-day mode remains un-tested. While there is little doubt one can participate in more meetings and increase's one's screen time by removing the commute and the need to move between locations, whether this leads to long-term business success and employee satisfaction is less clear.
My colleague Kate Lye recently published a thoughtful article about culture, advocating the need to be both more purposeful and strategic. At its very heart, organisational culture is about how people behave - "the way we do things here". Culture is about the values exhibited and the aspirations held. Community can be defined as a group of people who all have a future in common. I would argue, all of this is easier to set, communicate, observe and replicate when people share the same physical space.
I have seen a number of colleagues, friends and even family members, hired into new jobs during the pandemic. Just about all their interactions and activities, including induction, have been remote or virtual. This has been very challenging; from figuring out simple operational tasks to understanding and engaging with the more strategic.
Many organisations have set this month (September 2021) as a deadline to have workers back in the office, some full-time, many on a part-time or hybrid basis. How a back to work policy is set and implemented will influence an organisation's culture and performance. It's far better to consciously think this through than be caught on the hop when it may be too late.