Returning to the workplace: Making office space work harder

With Covid-19 restrictions having lifted, many organisations are planning their return to the office. However, many employees wish to continue working remotely at least some of the time to take advantage of the flexibility that goes with it. For employers looking to keep and attract the most talented people, hybrid working will need to be a consideration.

Many organisations have already started to rethink how the physical office fits into their business plans. Considerations largely centre around two aspects: money and people. Now that remote working has proven to be viable, organisations no longer need an office space that can accommodate the entire workforce in one go. Therefore, they can take advantage of smaller or shared, more cost-effective spaces, that can be used in flexible ways.

A greater awareness of staff wellbeing has also come to the fore during the pandemic, caring employers would do well to keep this in mind. While some people will be looking forward to returning to the office, not everyone will feel the same. For some, getting rid of a commute has gifted them a chunk of time every day and a boost in quality of life. The best organisations will consider the different circumstances of each employee, for example, whether they have children or vulnerable people at home to care for. As continuing to work remotely benefits these people, any plans for hybrid working should take this into account.

Returning to the office will be another substantial culture change, just like leaving the office was. So, it’s important to take a holistic approach to business transformation, addressing everything from people and processes to infrastructure and systems. Failing to consider the knock-on impact of new working practices on other areas of the organisation and beyond can result in problems further down the line. This can reduce the likelihood of positive change being long-lasting. In addition, if an organisation decides to return to the office as ‘normal’ then they should realise it is not a decision made in a vacuum. Employees may consider switching jobs to continue working with an employer who has adopted a ‘new normal’.

Without people, an organisation cannot be successful, so the first step should be to gauge employees’ feelings. Carrying out one-to-one meetings, group discussions and sending out anonymous surveys, can help to gain honest feedback on which to base decisions. However, this should be a continuous process, as people’s minds may change over time depending on their circumstances, their confidence and the changing Government guidance around working practices.

Importantly, organisations must think about which options best support their business models. For example, those workers that rely heavily on collaboration may benefit more from a dedicated office space than those where work is largely done on an individual basis. Other organisations rely on junior staff building their skills by working with more experienced team members, so may also be better suited to an office environment. People can absorb knowledge just from being around their peers, so ensuring junior team members can benefit from this is important. Many of these considerations will not be one-size-fits-all, therefore fairness between teams of different types and responsibilities is likely to be a challenge to be faced.

Another key consideration is inclusivity. Remote working has enabled businesses to recruit from far and wide, whilst some staff have taken the opportunity to move out of the big cities. To retain this benefit, effective remote working will need to be maintained. As some people begin to return to the office, those who live further away and do not wish to regularly commute must not be forgotten. Similarly, people who prefer to work in a physical office environment must not be pressured into continuing to work remotely. Those people with disability, may have found digital engagement to be more of a barrier than others, so they need to be able to choose the working arrangements that are right for them.

To provide the best of both worlds, employers should experiment with flexible workspaces that offer private offices, hotdesking and meeting rooms. For example, shared hub spaces in suburban locations instead of dedicated large city centre offices. This gives employees the choice of coming into the office when it suits them. However, this can be a substantial investment, so it is worth considering a trial period to ensure it works for both the business and staff before committing to a longer-term contract.

As well as the physical workspace, organisations also need to think about whether employees have everything they need to work from anywhere. Technology such as laptops and mobile phones has been vital throughout the pandemic, but employers may now have to assess whether the technology provided is suitable for long-term hybrid working. Technological advances, such as Zero Trust, can enable an improved user experience whilst balancing good data security. Training, whether formal or informal, should also be considered to ensure that every member of staff has the skills and knowledge they need to use the technology provided to its full potential.

Taking a blended team approach, which involves temporarily bringing in external support, can help to work-through the options, as well as plan and support the transition while upskilling employees. If gaps in knowledge have been identified, then third party experts can be engaged to collaborate with the workforce, ensuring that vital work is completed while staff are learning. For example, new processes may need to be documented and agreed, with new digital tools to support them. This will require careful business case consideration, system implementation and training. Blended working can be a cost-effective method of achieving transformation results while upskilling internal teams.

With virtual meetings likely to continue for the time being, offices should also be adapted to enable this now common practice. Larger screens, better cameras and improved microphones can all be implemented to allow virtual meetings to be carried out effectively in an office meeting room. Further physical changes to the workplace could include the creation of private areas for people to have individual video calls without the background noise of a bustling workplace. Some flexible office spaces provide phonebooths and private rooms for this purpose, so this should be considered if an organisation chooses to move premises or adapt their current spaces.

Hybrid working is very likely to be the future for many organisations, but that doesn’t mean it will be a simple overnight transition. To gain the most from this transformation, leaders should act with considered intention and work with their teams, continually assessing each aspect of the transformation process. If there is an element that isn’t working for the organisation or its people, then employers must not be afraid to alter their plans.

Being able to have meetings wherever and whenever has brought a new level of efficiency to business operations. However, a rise in productivity shouldn’t outweigh the needs of employees. Hybrid working maintains the flexibility that many people have enjoyed while allowing them to benefit from the face-to-face experience of the office. Nevertheless, different considerations will have to be made to ensure every employee is on board with the change. A level of compromise is inevitable, but through effective communication, the right balance can be found.

Tim Powlson, principal consultant at business change consultancy, Entec Si

Author: Editorial Team

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