After more than a year of an enforced lockdown, the business leaders in the UK are now preparing to (or have started to) bring their employees back to offices (BTO). Against the backdrop of the transition from working from home (WFH) to working from the office, there is a need to reflect on employees’ experiences and organisational plans and the resources that are required to implement this transition. Transferring work practices back to offices is not only the change of a physical place, it is a psychological shift, because of the disruptions of the work patterns to which employees have become accustomed during the pandemic. Although work from home entails technological, management and psychological challenges, the return to physical collaboration and other aspects of office work practices raise different concerns, which call for a closer look at their roots and implications for the future of work.
Recent national and global surveys have explored the sentiments of people about returning to offices, and not all of them are very positive. On the one hand, the lack of human interaction, face-to-face collaboration and the fear of missing out (FOMO) are the reasons that might compel people to switch to office work patterns. On the other hand, homeworking provided flexibility that they could not have imagined before. For example, data collected from the participants across 10 countries showed that employees do not want to go back to the way things were before the pandemic. In the European countries, 59% of employees are keen to resume working in office spaces, while in the UK, the number is significantly lower, accounting for around 33% of respondents. Despite the difference in figures across countries, the findings of the surveys show the employees’ aspiration to retain the homeworking principle to a certain degree. Such findings suggest that there is a need to look into the reasons why people want to work in a certain way, how to plan the work in the post-pandemic reality and when to realise a full-scale transition to on-site work. To prompt a discussion on the future of work, Sphere Network organised a webinar about employees’ concerns and challenges, and the ways to adapt to the new work environment from the business leaders’ and employees’ perspectives.
Concerns and Challenges
Challenges of Working from Home: Work from home has strongly exposed the psychological vulnerabilities of people, and affected the quality of social life and performance at work. From the psychological perspective, the pandemic removed the boundary between home and work, making work-related issues penetrate into personal life. The feeling of presenteeism (the perception of work being present at home at any time of the day) and pervasive availability through technologies (email, phones, virtual communication tools) develop fatigue and stress, in the long run, contributing to reduced performance and productivity in some whilst others were over productive. In the blended environment, it has become easy to overlook personal relationships and family dynamics. Hence, the opening of offices creates the opportunity to isolate work in the physical space and release oneself from the burden of being accessible beyond office hours. From the social perspective, work from home has been depriving people of social interaction – the fundamental aspect of human existence. Face-to-face communication and interaction with people stimulate learning experiences. Coming back to the office will enable employees to restore the sense of community and develop connections with colleagues. From the productivity perspective, the experience of working from home differs substantially according to socio-economic status and personal circumstances. People living in lower income thresholds are disadvantaged in terms of ergonomics in the workspace at home and access to necessary technologies, creating inequality in opportunities to perform well. Smaller apartments create more destruction, affecting the efficiency of work activities and decision-making.
Challenges of Working from the Office: Work from the office also entails challenges, stemming from health, psychological, financial and work-related concerns. The risk of contracting the virus in the office or while commuting on public transport can cause anxiety, fear and depression. While physical safety in the office can be maximised, emotional safety is hard to regulate. Apart from health-related concerns, the change in work roles and practices has implications for individuals’ adaptability to new working conditions. Employees can find it difficult to stick to office discipline after a long break away from the corporate environment, which can trigger stress. The conditions of being inflexible in the work schedule and a less private workspace make working in the office an unattractive prospect for employees. According to a survey of UK workers, over two-thirds of people want to have hybrid work patterns, while working in the office from 2 to 4 days.
To leverage upon hybrid work principles (remote and office work) in the post-pandemic world, physical space, organisational practices and culture, work patterns and performance assessment approaches need to be reimagined.
Safe and collaborative workspace: Future workplaces need to be physically safe for employees and to be redesigned in such a way as to facilitate collaborative practices. In terms of safety, employers need to conduct and develop risk assessment and management strategies in line with government and public health guidance. The toolkit produced by the Society of Occupational Medicine in the UK (SOM) in collaboration with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), Mind, ACAS and Business in the Community (BITC) is helpful in guiding organisations about the rules and procedures that can be used to improve occupational health and wellbeing.
The collaboration between the health and safety team is important to ensure better conditions for employees and lower health concerns and any associated feeling of anxiety or fear. By prioritising the safety and wellbeing of workers, companies can optimise their performance. International companies need to seek guidance about safety approaches and support services locally. From the design perspective, the office of the future needs to have the spaces to meet personal, collaborative, social and learning needs. The office needs to be more personalised and adapted to facilitate interactions that cannot be performed online, by introducing specially equipped collaborative rooms. In such spaces, the role of technology plays a central role to enable blended (online and offline) work experiences. The use of video-conferencing and virtual meeting tools needs to be optimised to minimise meetings beyond office settings and unnecessary commuting.
Supportive culture: To make the transition to work from the office efficient, organisational culture should instil the development of a sense of community, support and open communication. The feeling of belonging to the work community depends on the accessibility of leaders to communicate with subordinates and practices that encourage the mental health of employees. Settling into a new routine might affect individuals’ performance and cause distress. Through communication about new ways of working, the employees can relieve their stress and anxiety, reduce ambiguity about expectations and performance indicators. The culture promoting two-way communication between leaders and employees stimulates and inspires learning, and contributes to better productivity, engagement and retention. Work experiences in which people feel a shared purpose to achieve a common goal increase the sense of accountability and collective resilience. To develop a supportive and caring culture and improve learning in the new work settings, the introduction of training, the provision of additional resources and mentoring may be necessary. Wellbeing plans and programmes are an opportunity for workers to discuss experiences and improve resilience in crisis situations in the future. Also, setting realistic expectations about employees’ productivity and the time required for their adaptation is important for company leaders in the transition period.
Flexible work patterns: In trying to predict how work life will change, the flexibility in setting work patterns, work roles and productivity assessment criteria could be crucial. First, it is important to understand to what degree bringing all staff back to the office is necessary by considering the physical spaces that are available, the dependence of people on special facilities, their mental and physical health and the nature of their responsibilities. After the pandemic, people’s expectations about how they fulfil roles may have dramatically changed. Although it is not possible to address all workers’ needs and demands, it is helpful to ensure that they are heard and understood. With all the factors involved, it may be worth introducing fully remote, hybrid, hybrid by circumstances and on-site modes of work. By adapting work modes to individual circumstances and work responsibilities, employers can improve effectiveness, productivity and agility. If new work modes have been introduced and work roles have been reimagined, work efforts will not reflect the hours spent while working. That means that more personalised approaches in assessing the performance of employees need to be adopted.
- In the future of work, employees want to retain the homeworking principle to a certain degree.
- Working from home is challenged by the constant feeling of presenteeism, lack of social interaction and communication and the quality of home workspaces.
- The concern of contracting the virus, fear and anxiety associated with the change of working patterns, context and schedule can challenge the transition to working from the office.
- The provision of safe and collaborative workspace, supportive culture and flexible working patterns are important for employees’ adaptation to working from the office.
Resources for this seminar
The Nowhere Office Julia Hobsbawm
Remote, Office Not Required written in 2011 Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson (available from most major booksellers as well as many online sellers
Post Pandemic Office
Forbes – FOW and new workplace – how to make work better
McKinsey – Reimagining the office
Forbes – Companies plan to bring employees back to the office fall 2021
BPS – Covid related anxiety & stress in the workplace
Mental Health at Work – Covid 19 Returning to the workplace
APA Org – Employee Mental Health
All Change here – People Management article
Whitepaper by Formica and recent survey of their workers. April 2021
ICAEW – survey of 1,000 workers
37% feel that their company are avoiding implementing new hybrid ways of working
UK emps, most reluctant to return (1:3 returning part time compared to 59% over Europe)
British Psychological Society
Business Leader article
Keytree/Deloitte – articles around building back. (Steve Ingram)
Webinar recording with Steve Ingram – New Normal/Deloitte
The Guardian – Most people in UK did not work from home in 2020, says ONS https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/17/home-working-doubled-during-uk-covid-pandemic-last-year-mostly-in-london?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other
The Guardian – Leavism – working while on holiday