On Friday 17 July, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that as from early August, the government’s “work from home” directive will be lifted – and employers can decide when it’s safe for employees to return to the office. There is already a move to return civil servants to their offices, although with a potential of less than 30% occupancy, this is a long way from normal.

The Government’s chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance said he sees no reason to change official advice – people who can work from home should continue to do so. He observes that many companies say that arrangements are working well and aren’t causing an adverse effect on worker productivity.

Why does the government want us to return?

As ever there is a balance to be struck with a general desire to “get back to normal”. The economy has taken an enormous hit and the businesses that support workers around their offices are suffering through a collapse in demand. Also, many cannot wait to get back to the office – they miss the people, the social interaction, the discipline, structure and infrastructure (adjustable chair / desk, good Wi-Fi, multiple monitors, free food, services etc) of a ‘proper’ working environment.

However, evidence from employers shows productivity holding up among their knowledge worker communities, despite home schooling and other demands on people’s lives – so why would we upset the situation? The PM said workplaces need to be “Covid safe” – surely the safest place is at home?

In the light of the PM’s announcement, I was invited to discuss this hot topic on 5 BBC Radio shows (BBC 5 Live and 4 regional stations) – to share AWA’s recent review of 20 years of academic research into virtual / agile working.

Reflecting on the announcement and the interviews, here is a summary of the key themes.

Do we need offices?

Several radio hosts asked whether we would look back on the “old normal” as an archaic way of operating (requiring people to undertake lengthy commutes to sit in offices all day).

My feeling is that a blend of office and remote is ideal for most people. For 20 years I have helped people adapt to the idea that providing everyone with a desk and expecting it to fulfil all their needs doesn’t enable people to do their best work and isn’t an effective and economic way of managing resources. Years of workplace utilisation studies show time and again that office workplaces stand idle 40/50/60% of the time, while people are away doing other activities for which a desk isn’t the solution. Office space can therefore be incredibly expensive and wasteful, a luxury we can ill afford.

That said, many people like to come to the office – it provides structure, discipline, sociability, separation of home from work etc. Giving them a choice about where they work on tasks – finding the best environment for them – is surely what we should be encouraging managers and their senior leadership teams to consider.

The big question is – if we have an office, what do we use it for? How can it add value and justify the money spent on it? If we embrace a different way of operating, how much space is needed and what would it be used for? Should it be much more ‘event’ driven – such that people come to do something specific, for an experience they can’t replicate anywhere else and which truly contributes to the team’s strategic goals?

Or do we continue to ask people to come to a piece of expensive real estate and sit at a desk 1 or 2 metres apart from colleagues simply because we are wedded to a romantic notion that this provides the “best” experience? That wasn’t the case before and having had a taste of more autonomy and control for 4 months, its arguably more unlikely now.

Is productivity being prioritised over safety?

During the radio shows, concerns were expressed that Government is prioritising productivity and the economy over safety. Employers might be tempted to pressure people to return to the office – even those living with others that are vulnerable and shielding – and they might refuse to return.

Sources show that many companies aren’t planning to open their offices and require people to return any time soon – and recent employee surveys show people are still finding home a productive environment. Some large corporations have already extended the “work from home” practice into 2021 – some indefinitely. Organisations are looking at talent and hiring policies and remote working certainly increases the talent pool beyond normal commute distances.

The vital thing is choice. We know that when offices open, they will need to operate social distancing and pay particular care to hygiene and safety, so they cannot operate at full capacity or anything like it. At best, they could be available to people that actively want or need to come in – those that have difficult home circumstances that make focus and concentration difficult, those that miss the social aspects of work and those that feel more creative and collaborative when they are with other people.

That said, if only a proportion of any team are in the office at a time, then the conditions that people miss, or that make them more productive, may not be available – certainly not without planning to ensure the ‘right’ people are in together.

Naturally to get to the office, people will need to use public transport – which the Government is now encouraging commuters to use. How safe people will feel, and whether they will want to use those methods to get to work are also a key consideration.

Requiring people to return would be a heavy-handed next step for an organisation that has just spent 4 months trusting people to work remotely. A consultative process which engages everyone on a team by team basis would be much better received, enabling people to find the best way to work in the future. Reflecting on what has worked well since March and what isn’t so great is a positive way to start – and doing this together (manager and team members) builds involvement and ensures all voices are heard and concerns addressed.

Employers want people to do their best work every day. Forcing them to return to workspace they see as inherently unsafe (either the journey or the physical proximity in the workplace – even if it appears to be “Covid safe”) could have a detrimental effect on anxiety levels and damage the opportunity to increase productivity through opening the office. Finding a balance is in everyone’s best interests.

Can we be ‘virtually’ social?

Everyone has a view about the best conditions for being social with colleagues. In the past, ‘social’ was often about going to the pub after work or having lunch together. There was little place for ‘social’ discussions during working time – especially not in meetings!

Others place a lot of emphasis on the ability to chat during the day, to share spontaneous ideas or issues, to have those serendipitous moments when you bump into others. This, they say, can’t be done when we work apart. While these feelings are strongly held, it would be difficult to quantify the benefits in terms of overall productivity and while serendipity is great, perhaps its not sufficient to build a whole workplace approach around?

Our research shows that the practice most strongly correlated to team performance is social cohesion. This is about how well we know each other as people, whether we know about each other’s skills and expertise and whether we get on well / care about each other. So, cohesion is vital – but it doesn’t rely wholly on being face to face or being together all the time.

If we had strong working relationships when we went into Covid lockdown, then that would have helped and sustained us during the last 4 months. Those that are aware of the importance of team relationships (or just missed the office social interaction) have spent time ensuring that they were nurtured over this period.

Research at Microsoft found that people immediately looked for ways to connect – with purely social meetings increasing by 10% in a month, and scheduled 1:1s increasing by 18%. People were conscious that they could lose important connections and found ways to avoid that happening.

On the flip side, those that weren’t aware of the importance of relationships may have let them slide. Research shows that it’s important to be more intentional in the way we behave to keep relationships strong when we work apart.

During one radio discussion, we talked about onboarding new people remotely. AWA welcomed new American colleagues over the last 4 months, involving them in a range of work related and social events – all online of course. We also record informal interviews so people can share their background, skills and passions, and these are available to all the team. Listeners contributing to the show had also experienced positive onboarding experiences over this period. While this isn’t “ideal” – well not ideal in the way we had come to regard the ‘gold standard’ – but it is far less daunting than many would have us believe.

In conclusion

I hope organisations will seize the opportunity to strategically review where they are now and seriously consider why they need an office, what purposes it can serve and how to make it a value adding experience rather than one based on outdated habits and management by observation.

Organisations may be under financial pressure to save cost and reducing real estate could feel like an easy solution. Given that space may not be easily disposed of in the short term, the challenge is how to repurposed it and maximise its value by engaging with employees and managers to find the best, most creative ways of operating a blend of face to face and virtual, so everyone can do their best work every day.

For more information on what we have learned about virtual working whilst experiencing the pandemic, you can see our other blog post.