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The great office debate – why businesses shouldn’t write off the office just yet

By Dan Teuton
16 November 2020

The second wave of Covid-19 may mean a return to homeworking for many, but that shouldn’t stop business leaders planning for a return to the office, as David Thomas, partner at property consultancy Vail Williams LLP, discusses.

We know from the latest transport data from the ONS that people, predominantly outside London, have slowly returned to work in recent months, in search for those ‘water cooler’ moments to spark innovation and progress.

However, as the second Covid-19 wave begins to rise, Government is once again encouraging people to work from home, if and when they can.

For those able to work productively and in an appropriately comfortable environment, this news may be welcome, but for others who do not enjoy the same experience, the announcement will be met with a sense of frustration. This will be particularly true for those businesses who have so carefully prepared for a safe return to the office in recent months.

Throughout this time, the debate surrounding the return to the office has become surprisingly polarised and politicised, focusing on two core facets – our ability to be productive from home and the lack of innovation and collaboration that results from not being in the office.

Companies have found themselves torn. On the one hand we have seen some incentivise staff to return in the case of Bloomberg, while others such as Facebook and Twitter do not expect to return until 2021.

A return to the office, to one extent or another, will happen. So, when considering the great debate of whether to work from home or commit to a wholesale return to the office in the longer term, what should business leaders consider?

Accept that there is no black or white answer

To distil the home/office debate down to concentration versus collaboration is to over simplify what is a complex interaction between an individual’s needs, the needs of the business and society as a whole.

Employees do not simply either concentrate or collaborate. According to two pieces of published research by Leesman, up to 26 different types of activity are undertaken by employees in any given day.

Their place of work needs to reflect and bring out of the best of both, and that may mean a blend of flexible working environments is required.

Your brand matters

Marketers across the country will breathe a sigh of relief to read this, but your brand matters and needs to be taken into account as part of your future property strategy.

You’ve invested a great deal of time and effort in creating the brand and culture that you have. It is core to your employee experience and proposition, and you may find that working from home may damage this in the longer term.

Burnout is real

While much has been written about the short-term gains in productivity while working from home, the stark reality is that many employees are beginning to reach burnout.

Under health and safety legislation, employers have a duty of care to ensure that all employees enjoy a safe working environment and the same should be true of working from home.

As the BBC reported recently, over the past six months many people have had to share working environments in less than ideal circumstances, with desks made from cardboard boxes, plastic crates, and in extreme cases, even ironing boards. Clearly this is not sustainable in the longer term and you may find that inappropriate office setups result in health complaints associated with poor posture and even sickness absences.


No one-size-fits-all answer

It is important to recognise that each and every one of your employees’ working from home will experience something different. Some will be in a multi-occupied environment working with five people around a kitchen table, while others may have their very own dedicated workspace such as a study.

Similarly, there can be vast differences in technology and mobile signal between home and office environments, the lack of a second screen, no access to printing or copying or arguments about who should be allowed VPN access in order to access information.

While none of this is insurmountable, to improve the employee home working experience, it would need to be provided consistently as well as cost effectively to ensure successful rollout.

Duty of care

Of course, in these challenging economic times, achieving economies of scale and the tightening of purse strings will be important. But this must not be to the detriment of our people.

As business leaders, we must consider the psychological impact of working from home. Some employees have reported anxiety, fear of missing important information that they would normally pick up in the office, loneliness and mental health issues.

If working from home is to continue to one extent or another, we have a duty of care to work with our employees to improve their home working environment and experience, while simultaneously creating a safe and flexible office environment to return to for those ‘light bulb moments’ whenever the time is right.

There is no doubt that there will be a change towards more flexible means of working and this is to be applauded. But we also understand that these decisions, in terms of how they affect property portfolios and your people, are not black and white.

It is not a simple question over whether to have an office or not, because no business is the same and nor is the home working experience of your people.   

The variables which will inform your future office requirements will be many and getting insight from a professional occupier advisory team will make all the difference.   

Linkedin2David Thomas


For more information about the issues discussed in this article, contact David Thomas:

[email protected]