Long reads

Do we need the office?

27 May 2021 By Rob Gray

As Covid restrictions ease, many employers are considering alternatives to the traditional workplace – some more left field than others

Once the staple of the five-days-a-week commute, the location of its own unique brand of politics and the centre of many of our working lives, the office has taken a step out of the limelight during the last 15 months thanks to mass remote working instigated by the Covid pandemic. And a concept that may a few years ago have seemed unthinkable is now being seriously considered by businesses up and down the country: whether they really need – or indeed want – an office. 

A recent BBC survey of 50 of the UK’s biggest employers, together employing more than 1.1 million people, found almost all do not plan to bring staff back to the office full time once lockdown restrictions are eased, with 43 of the organisations saying they would embrace a hybrid model – a mix of home and office working – where staff are encouraged to work from home two to three days a week.

And the trend isn’t just prevalent among the business behemoths. Research published in April by Grant Thornton UK found just 5 per cent of 603 mid-sized businesses believe that full-time office working will be most effective for their people post pandemic. Drilling down into the data, 44 per cent of the organisations surveyed feel a shift towards more remote working, rather than office based, is the best way forward. Of these, 37 per cent believe a blended approach, with more time spent working remotely than in an office, is best, while 7 per cent prefer full-time remote working. A further 25 per cent think an even split between office and remote working is ideal. Given the changing ways of working expected post Covid, 51 per cent of the businesses surveyed also anticipate that their office or workspace will need to be repurposed. 

Clearly, there are various ways forward and many considerations for companies to weigh up. “Organisations are taking different approaches,” says Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the CIPD. “Some are going all out for 100 per cent home working and closing their head offices. Others want to return to the more traditional, everyone onsite approach. But hopefully there will be more in between those two ends of the spectrum, where they look to combine the best of home working with a return to the office.” 

Below we look at some of the models being pursued and talk to senior people professionals about why their organisation is going down a particular path, and the challenges and opportunities this poses.

The remote-first business 

HomeHero, a prop-tech start-up with a team of 60, decided to become a ‘remote first’ organisation in the early weeks of the pandemic. For some, this means working in their home offices, while for others it might be a local co-working space or hot desking facility.

Head of people Louise Matthews says there are huge advantages to working remotely, although there is a big challenge in building, and maintaining, a strong company culture. To help people bond and connect, HomeHero has implemented a programme of virtual team socials, including wine tasting, film nights, cookery classes and cocktail evenings.

While the organisation works to a remote-first model, it also has a creative ‘bunker’ in Shoreditch, east London, which allows the team to come together when they need to. “It’s a great spot for workshops, brainstorms and team days,” explains Matthews. “It’s a good fit for us, and a great balance in staying connected while working remotely. We’ve also really leaned in to tech tools like Slack, Google Hangouts, Miro and Trello. We’ve had to adapt ways of working, but a year down the line we’re seeing great results.”

The touchdown spaces 

The events of 2020 led Hertfordshire County Council to review how and where its people work and to consider how working differently could enable it to be a more modern and flexible organisation. This necessitated the development of a longer-term ‘ways of working’ vision that prioritises outcomes over locations. 

Under this vision, greater use has been made of ‘touchdown spaces’ introduced a few years ago. “As a county council we have various buildings and job roles as well as the regular office bases, from fire stations and libraries to day care centres,” says Caroline Butler, head of HR strategy, reward and employee relations. “Many of our employees travel around the county caring for our citizens. It made sense to open touchdown spaces in our buildings so they didn’t have to drive back to a main building between clients.” 

Now they are also being used with Covid safety in mind. Non-frontline staff, meanwhile, have been working at home for a year now. Recent pulse surveys indicate that going forward most wish to work mainly remotely with some time spent in the office, rather than the pre-pandemic situation where office working was the norm.   

The half-and-half arrangement 

Hybrid models are being developed in various forms, each tweaked to suit an organisation’s particular needs. One common answer that’s evolving with the aim of striking a good balance is ‘the 50/50’, in which employees are allowed to work from home up to half of the time, but the office is still very much used. 

Law firm Travers Smith has decided that once Covid restrictions have been permanently lifted and people feel safe to return to the office, those able to perform their role effectively on an agile basis will be free to work remotely up to 50 per cent per fortnight, with a minimum of two days in the office each week. That said, it’s expected that certain populations like trainee lawyers would benefit from being in the office more frequently, because of the invaluable learning opportunities that come from working directly with others. “HR plays a critical role in ensuring that a hybrid way of working is successful,” says HR director Moira Slape. “We have to ensure those who choose to work remotely for a portion of their week are given the same development opportunities as those who are in the office more regularly.” 

Travel technology giant Amadeus has also developed a 50/50 model, under which all employees will be eligible to work from home up to half of the time. The firm is also considering ‘work from anywhere’ alternatives. “Working from anywhere is being talked about a lot in the media but it is not straightforward and there are more considerations,” says Sabine Hansen Peck, senior VP of people, culture, communication and brand. “Can the job itself and the tasks be done from ‘anywhere’? Does the local infrastructure allow for proper tools and connections, like good broadband? And then there are also legal and tax considerations.” 

Amadeus has begun piloting the arrangement in France and expects to implement it across other international sites over 2021. It has launched a survey on the topic covering employees’ intentions and will take comments into account as it refines local policies and guidelines. “While we have proven that working from home is productive and efficient, we believe having colleagues together in the same place has great value,” adds Hansen Peck. “The office becomes the preferred space for face-to-face socialising, collaboration and creativity.”

The collaboration campus 

Online retailer The Very Group has discovered that colleagues want to retain elements of remote working. It is mindful of related wellbeing issues – for example, it introduced a ‘no meeting zone’ between 12.30pm and 1.30pm daily, when colleagues are encouraged to take a break. While the expectation is that there will be more hybrid working than before the pandemic, Very has invested to reconfigure its Liverpool campus – the base for around 1,800 people – to make it more suitable for collaboration and innovation. “We’re planning for a gradual return to the office, recognising that it may take some time for some of our colleagues to feel truly comfortable and get used to any Covid-safe measures that remain in the short term. We won’t be rushing into it,” says chief people officer Sarah Willett. 

“We absolutely still need our offices. We believe creativity happens best when people are together. Our office spaces will be about high-energy, high-impact creativity and collaboration.” Willett adds that the plans are about productivity and offering staff true value – and getting value back in return: “By offering better balance, flexibility and interesting and inspiring work, we can widen our talent pool, and attract and retain more amazing people.” 

Meanwhile, fintech company Revolut found 68 per cent of its employees wanted the flexibility to work both from home and the office, while 32 per cent preferred fully remote work. Consequently, the firm is transforming its workplaces into collaboration and innovation spaces called RevLabs. “To help us select a model, we gave a lot of careful consideration to the opinions of our staff,” says Jim MacDougall, VP of people. “We also researched global trends and reviewed industry standards and best practice for workplace policies. For us, it was important to give our Revoluters some control over the way they would be working, both now and in the future.” 

The ‘what, not where’ model 

As part of its culture transformation strategy, Staffordshire Police has developed a ‘trust-driven policing’ initiative with a focus on delivery of results as opposed to a more traditional focus on time and physical presence as an indicator of performance. The advent of Covid accelerated the work and helped people with a more traditional approach see that working in different ways could be a good thing. “We know people experience better health and wellbeing, lower absence, less stress, greater productivity and greater overall happiness when they have greater control over all parts of their lives,” says Justine Kenny, director of people and resources. 

“So we want people to have a choice over where, when and how they deliver on their objectives. In essence, people need to be where they need to be to deliver what they need to deliver, when it needs delivering. If you are, for example, a response officer, then you need to be available to respond to calls for service from the public on a particular shift, whereas, if you’re an HR business partner who’s working on policy development, you can do that any time of day from home, the park, the local café, or wherever. It’s all about choice.”  

Engineering group Mott MacDonald, meanwhile, has adopted what group head of people Graeme Clarke describes as “a maturity-level approach to agile working” that gives people the freedom to operate within a framework. “We have taken a global perspective using company-wide principles that are open to local interpretation,” he says. “This gives everyone flexibility.” 

The approach was chosen because different countries are at different points in the pandemic. “Duty of care means we can’t impose a ‘one size fits all’ approach,” says Clarke. “If you try and respond in the moment from the ‘centre’ you end up confusing people as everything is different globally.”

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