Making a case for the workplace

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Written by Peggie Rothe on 1 October 2021 in Features
Features

Despite recent research Peggie Rothe urges people to not disregard the office

 
 
Recent YouGov insights seem to suggest that the full-time workplace is dead and buried because, according to their research, the majority of employers and employees would prefer to continue working from home post-pandemic. This is not the case – there is still a place for the full-time office, just not in its current form. Right now, people are looking at it the wrong way – it's not that home working is necessarily better, it's that workplaces aren't keeping up with the home in facilitating work. The data gathered suggests that employers and employees would like to work in the office, at least some of the time, despite the current inadequacies. For too long offices have stuck to the same old tried and tested methods that are now looking rather more tired than tried in light of the working revolution that has happened in wake of what's been termed the "great working from home experiment". 
There are a few key factors where the workplace, when conceived and designed correctly, will always outperform the home.
 
There are a few key factors where the workplace, when conceived and designed correctly, will always outperform the home. Certain things, even with contemporary technologies, can never be replaced by the home, such as: the potential for chance meetings, being visibly available to your employer and colleagues, and the wellbeing from being in physical proximity with the people you work with. The challenge for the office now is to correct the shortcomings in other areas, which is tipping the balance in favour of the home, such as comfort, independent working space, domestic amenities and flexible working hours. 
 
The old office is dead, long live the office
 
The problems with old fashioned offices, that have been talked about in the media for a long time now, essentially boil down to the 9-5 hours, the daily commute, formal attire, and a lack of amenities. This is because most employers and business leaders have been following the old school of thought that puts efficiency first and foremost. This makes sense from a business model perspective, and when employees have nowhere else to go, but now that the office has fierce competition from home work stations, this approach needs to be readdressed. 
 
Furthermore, the home opens up a whole host of new benefits. There's the possibility of balancing work with childcare, personalising your own workspace, and of courSource se saving time and money on that dreary commute. This preference for home over the office (in its current form) is supported by data: overall, 19% of employees feel better supported to work productively from home than from their office (83% vs 64%). This being the case, it's unsurprising that the data would show that most would prefer to continue working from home post-pandemic, at least some of the time. 
 
However, the office does have a number of advantages that could never be usurped by the home, despite recent advances in technology. For one there is serendipity. Those unforeseen beneficial conversations that can only occur from a chance meeting, or arriving at the wrong meeting room at the right time. Working from home may be more efficient when you only have to click a button to be beamed into a team meeting, but it removes these unquantifiable chance occurrences that can be the source of accidental innovation. 
 
Another is visibility – that is vital for both employers and employees. For employees because it allows them to be on the radar of their superiors and makes them more likely to be given praise or earmarked for promotion. For employers, they can more easily see emerging talent, or see someone visibly distressed that may be unwilling to complain about it. Data shows that the top performing workplaces score highly for ‘informal unplanned meetings' and ‘informal social interactions'.
 
Fail first, and fail fast
 
When reduced to simple concepts such as productivity, efficiency and overheads, there might be a strong case for a total move to working from home. But it's clear that such a bottom-line-centred future would lack some of the elements that make the old way of working so enjoyable – namely, serendipity and visibility. Elements which most would say they wouldn't want to lose in the new world of work, even if it isn't as ruthlessly efficient as a wholly homeworking set up. 
 
What elements employers should keep and what elements can be consigned to the dark ages of office life is up for debate, but it's a debate that needs to be had now. No one had the benefit of prior knowledge when 2020 plunged everyone into this home working experiment. Every business left the starting line when the Covid pistol was fired and it's a straight race to see who can try, test, fail and retry new workstyles until they find the one that fits their business the best. 
 
Business leaders need to become scientists: hypothesise new ways of working, test them, and then move on when the results aren't what they anticipated. Eventually they will arrive at the right way of working for their own business. But it's important that these businesses fail first, and fail fast, so that they can arrive quicker at their destination. Employers should approach this method with a few key goals in mind:
 
1. Understand the particular activities that comprise each employee's role in your organisation.
2. Probe which facilities and infrastructures employees deem important to fulfil those role requirements.
3. Consider the role complexity of different groups within the organisation.
4. Identify the colleagues who have activities integral to their role that will always be better supported in an office.
5. Verify how many employees are in highly collaborative vs. highly focused/individual roles.
 
Answering these questions should lead employers down the path to creating a work environment that both provides the flexibility, comfort and productivity of the home whilst also allowing company visibility, sociability and easy collaboration. 
 
A future worth fighting for
 
So how can the "ideal office" combine the advantages of both the office and the home to make the concept of the physical office rise from the ashes? Some challenges such as the daily commute and the inability to do your washing in the work day will never be overcome, but they can be offset by innovations such as flexible office working hours, which would stagger the traffic at traditional peak commute times. To counter the claims of YouGov in the recent report, our findings suggest that people don't want to work from home, rather, they don't want to work from the office in its current manifestation. 
 
Rather than go gentle into that goodnight (to quote Dylan Thomas), the office ought to fight for its place in the new post-pandemic world. Employers need to radically reinvent, experiment, and see what can be done better, the winners will see their workplaces slotting into this brave new world, while some may find that it makes more sense to continue working from home. It's an experimental period, and no one can say for sure what the future of work will look like, but I think there's still a place for the office in this future, and it's worth fighting for. 
 
Dr Peggie Rothe, chief insights & research officer at Leesman

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