How to create an office with purpose

Philip Nye, Head of Client Solutions at workplace creation experts Unispace shares his thoughts a key way to encourage employees back to the office.

With the lifting of government guidance on working from home, employers across the UK are encouraging their workforce to return to the office – with mixed results.

Whilst for many, the great work-from-home experiment was initially fraught with logistical nightmares over technology and childcare, employees have gradually become accustomed to the autonomy and flexibility of remote working, leading many to question whether they want to return to the workplace full stop. A recent survey found that nearly three quarters (73%) of UK workers would accept a reduction in pay in return for being able to work remotely permanently.

As such, companies are becoming increasingly aware that to encourage employees back to the office – whether permanently or on a part time basis, –  the office needs to have a clear and beneficial purpose and not just be regarded as a place to work.

The office is still essential – but it should be an experience

For employees who have settled into a remote work routine, providing an enhanced experience will be essential in encouraging the transition back into the office.

Before the pandemic, employees were expected to perform a myriad of tasks – focused work, client phone calls, team meetings – in homogenous settings. Few workplaces have been intentionally designed to support specific organisational priorities. In the future, it is unlikely that employees will have individual desk ownership or assigned seating, instead workspaces will need to be specifically designed to support the types of interactions that cannot happen remotely. If the primary purpose of an organisation’s space is to accommodate specific moments of collaboration rather than individual work, firms must offer a variety of environments that provide people with a choice of functionality and purpose, for example large tables for interaction, standing desks and team hubs.

The physical location of the office will also become increasingly important and businesses may consider occupying smaller but higher impact spaces. As organisations cannot compete with the home environment in terms of ease and convenience, they could use their office location to showcase the city/town/locality in its best light, with easy access to inspiring views, hospitaility and nightlife. For younger employees or those without access to either a good working environment or external spaces at home, the office can also provide these desirable settings.

The office should foster better employee wellbeing

Recent research from Nuffield Health has found that 41% of employees reported a mental health decline since working from home, with 50% citing overworking as a barrier to doing physical activity. Businesses can make returning to work a positive step on the road to better wellbeing by offering benefits and facilities that promote physical and mental health. This might include providing healthy food options and/or discounted gym memberships near the office. Perhaps some  group activities such as in-office yoga and pilates classes, or encouraging internal team sports. By giving employees easy access to alternative activities, businesses can encourage employees to reconnect with the physical workplace in the way that best supports their personal wellbeing.

The office should give back to the community

Local communities have been adversely affected by the pandemic, with the absence of many office staff from city centres hitting small businesses hard. Subsequently, as organisations re-open, they could use it as an opportunity to encourage employees to do some collective good in the communities surrounding their workplace. This could be as simple as encouraging staff to use local restaurants, print shops and suppliers, helping to rebuild their local economies. It could also involve pro-bono work/volunteering with  a local charity, school, or business. Employees increasingly want to know that their organisation is making a positive difference.

The office is a place of creativity, innovation & learning

Remote work cannot replace the social and collaborative benefits of the traditional office. Too many great ideas are sparked through spontaneous conversations or in person contact to consign the office to history.

As individual work can be achieved at home, the purpose of the office needs to pivot from focused work towards an environment that allows learning, collaboration, social engagement, entertainment, leisure & wellbeing, all of which will play a key role in enhancing the employee experience and strengthening corporate culture in a meaningful way.

As employers around the world experiment with bringing their employees back to work, we are presented with a unique opportunity to redefine the purpose of the office. Employers, therefore, should consider going beyond simply ensuring that the office is up-to-date with the latest technological requirements and Covid-safety protocols, and create inspirational working environments that provide real benefits over the alternative of remote working. Rather that reacting to the disruption of the past 18 months, employers should embrace this as an opportunity to establish meaningful change.