As the debate rages on about whether we all need to get back to the office, we thought it was time to take a step back. Most people in office-based jobs have spent most of their working lives commuting to a room where they sit with all their colleagues to work, followed by two years of predominantly working from home and connecting with colleagues remotely. The push to “get back to normal” is interesting from a psychological perspective, but before we even ask whether it’s necessary, we need to ask a more fundamental question – what is an office for? Only when we’re clear on what we use an office for and why we need it can we possibly be clear on whether we need to go into it.

What bosses want offices for

There are plenty of good reasons to want an office, but they’re often not the ones that people in leadership positions focus on. When I speak to business leaders about wanting their staff back in the office there are two main things that come up:

I’m paying rent for a space we’re not using

This is a big concern. Many businesses signed long-term contracts on expensive buildings, that despite the impact of Covid, they’re now committed to. They’re essentially paying a small fortune for an empty space. It’s also no coincidence that government ministers are pushing the “everyone back to the office” line, since many of them and their close associates are commercial landlords, who fear losing a substantial part of their income if everyone gives up their premises.

Reimagining rents: But is this a good reason to drive your staff back? You’re paying that money, now, until the end of your contract, whether people are sitting there or not. There are no real cost savings to getting them in the building. So, could you use that space for something else? Sub-letting desk space to individuals or small groups for co-working, or making it available to local organisations as an events space could cover some, or even all, of your costs, whilst helping you to build relationships with other businesses and entrepreneurs in your area. In a recent episode of the Reimagination at Work podcast, our guest Claire Hopkins, Co-Founder of Ideal, suggested that offices could be used as community spaces, entertainment venues, education and training venues, potentially giving businesses a new revenue stream and increasing their reputation in their community.

How will I know what my staff are doing?

It’s a common worry amongst managers and leaders that, if they can’t see their team working, they might not do it. When I was five months pregnant in an employed role, there was a heavy snowfall. I tried to drive in to work, skidded on the ice going down a steep hill, and crashed my car. Luckily I wasn’t hurt, and the car wasn’t damaged, but I had to abandon it and trudge through the snow back home. I told my boss I would work from home that day instead. That afternoon, an email went round to all staff saying that the weather was not an excuse to not come into work and that working from home was not an option. I did not attempt to drive into work again until the snow had cleared up as my priority was very much my unborn baby’s safety. But I do understand the fear that staff will just rush off and build snowmen when the opportunity presents itself, or run off to the beach when the sun’s out.

Reimagining responsibility: Again, let’s take a step back – do you really care if your staff are in their seats from 9 to 5? Of course, there are some jobs where that will matter, such as if they’re manning a helpline, but in those cases you’ll know if they’ve bunked off. For everyone else, your staff should have a set of tasks that they’re required to deliver on. Does it really matter if they do those between certain times, as long as they get them done by the deadline? Does it matter if they pop out between 11am and 2pm to build snowmen and slide down a hill on a tray, if they then stay at their desks until 8pm to catch up? Or maybe they were ahead of their work anyway and they’ll just work a bit harder or longer tomorrow. Ultimately, if their work gets done on time, what do you care how they do it? Your job as a manager isn’t to watch your team work, it’s to make sure they’re on track, support them with their learning and help them identify and tackle any issues they may face. If your staff aren’t getting work done on time or to the right standard, that’s a conversation that needs to be had about where they’re struggling – whether you’ve been watching them do it or not. More trust and confidence in your staff will also likely help to boost their results and increase their motivation. If you think your staff are likely to want to skive off at the first opportunity, you need to have some honest reflection as to why and think what you could do to increase their motivation and connection to the organisation.

What staff want offices for

As I said earlier, there are plenty of good reasons to want to work in an office. When you speak to employees about offices, the plus points they’re likely to state include:

  • A dedicated work space – not everyone has space for a home office, and many people are surrounded by children, pets, family members and other distractions at home, so a dedicated office with all the resources they need is important, as is the peace and quiet
  • Separation of work and home – getting out of the house to go to work can really help many people’s mental health, and it provides a clear dividing line between “work time” and “rest time”
  • Collaborating with colleagues – for a lot of people, Slack and Zoom just don’t cut it, they need to sit in a room and chat ideas or challenges through with the people around them
  • Social opportunities – working from home can feel pretty lonely, so going to an office to spend time with other adult humans can be very important to many people, and getting to know people can be a lot easier face to face

Reimagining rooms

Here are a few things that businesses have been doing to meet those needs, whilst also enabling a more flexible approach:

  • Workspace budget – providing a budget to staff for their workspace needs means employees can either get everything they need for a decent home office OR get themselves a co-working membership to allow them a space they can go to outside of their home. If several team members are using the same co-working space, that gives them an opportunity to work together, but it also gives the team an opportunity to build relationships with other local businesses.
  • Office hours – some businesses ask their staff to be in the building on certain days or at certain times so that there is an opportunity to gather everyone together, and outside those times they are free to work when and where they will be most effective.
  • Idea sharing – many organisations are now realising that throwing a load of people in a room and seeing whose ideas get heard (often the people who can shout the loudest) isn’t necessarily the best strategy. By adding a greater range of tools and processes for staff to share ideas and collaborate in a longer but more effective approach, ensures a wider variety of people can contribute and the group reaches a better conclusion.
  • Work socials – going down the pub on a Friday after work is a treasured institution for many, but it leaves behind the people who don’t drink, the people who have to get home for their kids, the people with particular access requirements and the people who feel uncomfortable hanging out in a bar with a load of drunk and boisterous colleagues. The pandemic forced a lot of organisations to rethink the office social, and now virtual escape rooms, Zoom quizzes, book clubs, craft groups, spa breaks and a range of inventive alternatives are now being offered to replace, or at least supplement, having to be trapped at the bar with a boss that gets over-familiar when he’s had a few.

What’s the future of the office?

Flexible and remote working have a lot of benefits, providing greater access for people with disabilities, neurodiversities, caring responsibilities, and a whole host of other factors. For many people, it makes them more productive, more fulfilled and more motivated. But there are many other people who need a physical office space for a huge range of reasons.

The future of the office – at least for an organisation that prioritises innovation, productivity and engagement – it is likely to be one of hybrid working. It will be one where physical spaces are made available, but where tools and processes are in place to allow people to contribute in a range of different ways.

To make this a success, the culture of the organisation will need to be considered carefully. The mission and values of the organisation will need to be clear, and communicated in such a way that everyone feels connected. The way that performance is measured, ideas are heard, information is shared and input is gathered, will all need to planned meticulously. The way that staff socialise, celebrate and support one another will need dedicated thought to make sure everyone is included.

But then, these are things you should be working on anyway.

There is a lot to do, but the rewards – in terms of results and profits available – if you get it right are huge.

If you would like support on your journey to reimagining your office, get in touch.