What is the post-pandemic role of the office?


Business Leader recently spoke to Marcus Thornley, CEO at Totem, regarding the future of the workplace post-COVID-19. 

Boris Johnson’s announcement at the end of February paved the way for mass excitement as a roadmap out of lockdown was finally published. The roadmap didn’t specifically mention when the call to work from home was going to be rescinded, but many predict that the 21st of June would be the natural date for businesses to be able to ask their employees to return to the office environment.

What employers and employees have gone through over the past year has been astonishing. The swift enforcement and call for all office workers to work remotely came as a shock to many businesses that weren’t set up to offer this type of working flexibility. While there was an initial shock in March and April last year, many have settled into the routine of working from their kitchen tables with daily at-home distractions.

Many business leaders may be itching to recreate the pre-pandemic office environment, but instead, they should take a step back and not rush into forcing their teams back to the office on 21st June. The relationship between employees and employers has changed over the past year, as has the role of the office.

Understanding how your people feel about any return to the office strategy is vital in showing you want to listen to their concerns and maintain a positive company culture.

What is the office for? 

One crucial question needs to be at the centre of the return to the office strategy for any business – what is the office now for? The answer to this will help you make decisions around the way that people should return to the office. Businesses need to understand the role the office should take in the future and the changes to working models that should be implemented.

Working from home has caused some issues, with a lack of collaboration between teams stifling business success. Our research found that collaboration is most effective when a team is co-located – the office used to be the stage for work, but now it’s just one stage where work related activities can happen. In the future this could mean that the office turns into more of a “collaboration space” compared to a “work space” of the past.

Finding the middle point between what employees miss from the office and what they have gained from working from home will be crucial in understanding how they want to proceed in working for your business. Understanding the nuances between different employees will also be vital – showing that your business can be as flexible as it has been over the past 12 months shows that you continue to trust your team as much as possible in the future.

Instead of just listening to a senior leadership team’s opinion, businesses should invest in technology to analyse and understand what their people want before making any decisions. It would be a lost opportunity for any business, that was forced into working from home, to make decisions and policies that aren’t thought through or based on data – it could seriously impact the morale of those who want more working flexibility when society opens up again, and impact on talent attrition too.

Announcing any updates to the working from home strategy through HR products, will support in fully understanding how employees are feeling about the return to office strategy.

Gleaning insights from data around the sentiment of language within these products can allow you to test the waters and also understand if there are any big barriers or objections to these updates. You want to take your employees on this journey back to normality, and these products will help you reshape how your business sees the function of the office for future years to come.

Shift in momentum

Major businesses are understanding that they cannot go back to the status quo from 12 months ago when they begin to open up offices again. Lloyds Bank and PWC are a couple of examples of businesses that are opening up channels of communication to understand what their people want from the return to the office strategy. According to early suggestions, the hybrid working model of employees coming into the office three to four times a week will become the norm.

The fact that large corporations are having open conversations with employees about how they want to work post pandemic shows clearly how the balance of power between employer and employee has shifted. Before businesses would dictate how, when and where employees would conduct their work, but the past year has shown that this no longer needs to happen. This previously paternalistic way of managing a workforce has changed and business leaders need to fully adapt to this change.

The shifting nature of work post pandemic will cause a seismic change within society and how businesses and the economy run. Business leaders should not be scared by these changes, but instead, see it as an opportunity to reimagine and reauthor what role the office has in the working environment. Providing channels for an open and honest conversation to understand what employees want from the return to the office will be critical. Not only this, but businesses must use technology and data to understand the impact of any future working announcements are made to get a fully holistic view of how employees are responding to the new working environment.