360 Workplace

The lockdown will emphasise the importance of the office

Like many firms, we are currently addressing the shape and culture of the organisation that will emerge into the world after lockdown. We have to address this issue both for ourselves and our clients. This highlights the purpose of the workplace – why do we go to the office in the first place?

After numerous conversations internally and with clients, all drawing on the insight and experience of our work over many years and theirs as building occupiers and landlords, a clear picture is emerging. As we start to take the first tentative steps back into something like normality we need to be aware of the complexities of this, the challenges and solutions.

There are practical issues to consider of course, including hygiene and distancing protocols and we have developed an informed and sophisticated response to the management of a return to work and the redesign of the workplace to accommodate it. Nobody knows how long this might go on for nor what vestiges will be left in the longer term, but it’s safe to conclude that there will be a permanent heightened awareness of our responsibilities to each other. 

There are also existential issues to consider, not least what we expect from offices. It’s been fascinating to watch the development of how these issues are discussed over the last couple of months. It began with speculation about whether we would ever return to the office at all. More recently the debate has shifted more to what we miss about working in the same place as our colleagues. This is inevitable as it has become apparent that working from home brings its own challenges.

For example, one of the largest studies into wellbeing during lockdown has just been published by Hays to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week. According to its study of 16,200 people in the UK, wellbeing has plummeted dramatically. The proportion of people who claim their wellbeing is positive has fallen from 61 percent before lockdown to 35 percent. The number of those who rate their wellbeing as negative rose from 7 percent to 23 percent.

Meanwhile, over a quarter (26 percent) of workers say that a lack of social interaction has been the greatest challenge to their wellbeing, followed by isolation and loneliness (13 percent) and boredom (11 percent). Whatever its advantages in other ways, working from home is not a panacea.

What is interesting about this and other reports is that they confirm what people miss most about the office, and it is other people. This doesn’t need to be explained of course, but it does highlight what we should be focussed on when designing offices. This isn’t just about personal interactions, relationships and collaborative work, but also the sense of belonging.

We’ve always known these things and the discussion about the role and form of the office has been ongoing for decades. But the lockdown has thrown all of this into sharp relief. Our own conversations have confirmed something of which we were already aware. That what people prefer is choice. Coming into the office at the same time every day and sitting in the same place is what irks them, not the office itself.

Even the much-discussed announcement by Twitter that its staff could work from home when they want is a tacit admission of this. The announcement was misinterpreted by some as meaning staff would only work from home, but that would just involve swapping one rigid working culture for another. Twitter isn’t offering people a ‘new normal’, it’s offering them choices.  

This is what will define working life after lockdown, but the principles and solutions involved predate it. These include a flexible working culture and an office that offers them choices. Above all an office that brings people together and embraces them as part of something bigger. Far from heralding the death of the office, the lockdown will usher in the creation of better offices.

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