The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the role of the office, with thousands of employees forced to swap their regular workplace for a home workspace. On the whole, the new arrangement has worked well. Just over 50% of those polled in The Adecco Group’s global survey said their experience of remote working had been positive, with 59% citing an improvement in work/life balance and 31% feeling more productive. As organisations contemplate the future workplace beyond the pandemic, they may well be questioning whether they still need offices at all.
In reality, ditching the office completely wouldn’t make sense, certainly for sectors with limited opportunities for teleworking, such as hospitality, manufacturing, and retail. Globally, the International Monetary Fund estimate that nearly 100 million workers in 35 advanced and emerging countries could be at high risk because they are unable to do their jobs remotely.
#1. Improving our mental health
Even if it were possible, doing away with the office would have a profound negative impact on a range of issues, not least, employee wellbeing. A study by Vision Direct found that 41% of employees felt more anxious and isolated than ever, after months cooped up at home, while 42% admitted they had struggled with their mental health more than usual in recent months. Missing out on office conversation and feeling unable to communicate properly via video and calls contributed to feelings of unease and happiness.
Full-time telecommuting is unlikely to suit the majority of employees and employers, but a return to the daily office commute is perhaps even less appealing to those who’ve enjoyed the flexibility of home working. A balance between the two is the logical solution, and one that would find favor with staff. The Adecco Group’s global survey revealed that 75% of employees wanted more flexibility and a mix of office-based and remote working.
#2. Boosting local economies
Communities are reeling from the drop in footfall of office workers spending. Last year think-tank Centre for Cities published research that suggested placing office spaces on high streets was one of the key ways to revitalise regions. Meanwhile, research from coworking firm TownSq revealed that people don’t want to return to their traditional commutes, with 85% stating they would want to work more locally in the future.
Founder, and CEO Gareth Jones says: “If people are working and living on our high streets, they create demand, so working in local offices will help ‘level up’ our local economies by placing people amongst other businesses that rely on their trade.”
#3. Optimising innovation and collaboration
One of the most compelling reasons why offices need to stay is their role in collaboration. To do this effectively people need to be able to share a common physical space, so the post-pandemic office, as part of a hybrid arrangement, will need to be conducive to collective innovation, productivity, and wellbeing.
Outsourced communications provider Moneypenny has offices in both the UK and the US that provide a creative space where staff can work and relax, complete with features such as a tree-house meeting space, landscaped gardens, and even a pub.
CEO Joanna Swash says: “While some of our staff may choose to work from home in the coming months, we know that many enjoy working in an office with colleagues, so we believe our offices will still have an important role going forwards. We have large, airy spaces that will always be needed for running meetings, training and seminars, and for working collaboratively and creatively as a group.”
#4. Cutting costs but boosting diversity and investment in human capital
The flexibility of a hybrid model will attract talent and enhance diversity and inclusion by removing some of the barriers that for example, those with care responsibilities encounter in a full-time, 9 to 5, office-based role.
A shorter office-based working week also creates opportunities to reduce business overheads. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 60% of employers believe that increased teleworking will reduce costs such as rent and utilities, taxes, and cleaning services. Some companies may decide relocate to smaller and therefore cheaper office premises.
It is often feared that the reduction of time skilled workers spend in their offices might lead to ‘ghost towns’ but according to Michel Serafinelli, an economics lecturer at the University of Essex, additional savings from lower rent could also lead to businesses investing more into innovation and human capital.
It now seems that Barclays’ boss Jes Staley’s proclamation that big offices ‘may be a thing of the past’ was somewhat premature. But neither will employees want to return to spending every working day at their office desks. Post-COVID, it’s not a question of whether we need office space, but of how much office space we need, and the risks of removing too much of it from the business model significantly outweigh the benefits. The smart strategy is one of balance, based on a clear understanding of need.