As we try to make sense of how best to cope with these pandemic times, this has forced us to think again about how we live and work. In particular, a great deal of discussion is taking place about the merits of working from home versus returning to the office. Once a niche workplace strategy, this has now been catapulted centre stage in the mainstream press and media – but with recent government announcements confusing the issue.
But are we asking ourselves the right questions? Or does the debate remain anchored in pre-pandemic thinking? Should we be looking at this home versus office working debate differently and seeking fresh perspectives?
Having spent the last few years asking people what the purpose of the office is for our book, we came across a range of views. We concluded that reaching consensus was unlikely because all stakeholders had different perspectives: the property world viewed it one way, HR saw it differently, and business leaders and management saw it another way again. What few recognised was that the spectrum was changing from the office anchored in one place – the traditional real-estate perspective – to one where consideration of the employee or individual has risen to become all-important. This is the ‘missing link’. And joining the dots between people, place and process (or rather IT) is paramount in a successful and productive working environment.
Even before the pandemic struck, the relentless march of digital technology heralded the way office work could be done anywhere, any place, anytime. This, coupled with the war for organisations to attract and retain the best talent, had already fuelled a paradigm shift to more flexible working conditions.
Now in the autumn of 2020, the ‘people issue’ has become the key factor. Lockdown proved the long-held management principle of presenteeism is dead – work is still being done without people being physically in the office and in many cases productivity is going up. As variations on lockdown extend into winter, behaviours become embedded and attitudinal change is rife. And this recent enforced experiment demonstrates that we now have real choice. Individuals are now asking themselves: what's the purpose of the office? Why do I need to go there? This is the case especially now with the risk associated with commuting by public transport and fears about whether organisations are deploying adequate health precautions in their premises.
If choice is to be the order of the day when it comes to the places we work in, what does that tell us? Maybe we can go back to some basic principles. Managers and employers should be asking questions such as:
- Where are our employees and teams situated today – and where could they be located?
- What is the team and individual workload, task and delivery status?
- What is the physical and mental wellbeing of our employees and teams like? Are we connecting and collaborating?
- What is the utilisation and availability of the office space and how safe are those buildings?
- Are we using the right tools to work, manage and collaborate in the workplace?
- What is the best distributed workplace solution for our employees, and how do we get there?
- Are there any alternative models that can enable us to operate in a safe, economically viable, healthy and sustainable manner?
In mulling these questions ourselves, we concluded the only purpose of that edifice we call ‘the office’ is to enable the performance of the business. In parallel, enterprises need people to operate their businesses and, if they exercise their choice about where and when they want to contribute, what happens?
We should set to one side this ‘office versus home’ bipolar debate and reinvent, reimagine and reset the way we work, how we are organised and how we use our workplaces. This has to be done to support people to do their best work, while moving away from siloed thinking to join the dots in aligning people, process and place, enabling them to work holistically as a more effective entity.
Finally, in terms of provoking or motivating people entrenched in narrow 20th century thinking, we should frame a strategy based on the old adage ‘necessity is the mother of all invention’. Now is the time for all stakeholders to come together to innovate and design a new fit-for-purpose, people-centric and sustainable model of 21st-century working.
Chris Kane and Eugenia Anastassiou are authors of Where is My Office?