Is anyone going back to the office?

The answer is yes. Now we know that working from home works, many employees will want to keep doing it when the coronavirus crisis fades.

Is anyone going back to the office?

Many employers won’t mind because they have already invested in the costs associated with remote working such as cloud set-ups and connectivity and have had some proof that the concept works.

Companies are currently counting the costs of having their buildings standing empty over the past few months. They will want to recoup this as soon as they can, and they will be equally keen to reconsider their real estate investments and long-term lease liabilities. Part of the solution will be to downsize, yet they won’t want to lose any of the advantages of having a functional office for the employees who are keen to return.

And many are keen to return.

People are innately social beings who like to engage with each other, not just in professional meetings but also in those ‘unplanned hallway moments’, a phrase coined by Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at the New America think tank and author of the bestseller Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play When No One Has the Time. She says such moments often lead to work assignments.

There’s no question that meeting face to face is good for team building. Researchers have demonstrated that when it comes to creative collaborations, virtual teams don’t perform as well as face to face teams.

During April’s Future of Work webinar, co-host Henry Grabar of Slate attributed this to what he called ‘psychological safety,’ which he described as feeling comfortable expressing ideas with co-workers. ‘When you work online, it can be harder to read people.’ He says this results in a kind of self-censorship, a situation that clearly is not good for creativity.

There will certainly be many managers relieved to return to the office with their staff because they’ve learnt just how time-consuming it is to manage remote workers. In a March survey of HR executives by Gartner, 76% said the top employee complaint during the pandemic was ‘concerns from managers about the productivity or engagement of their teams when remote.’

In some quarters this remains a concern. Before lockdown, many employers refused to let their staff work from home even some of the time, and as things ease up I suspect they will want to return to having all their staff where they can see them.

To cater for those who want to return and those who want to stay home, a hybrid of the two is likely to develop at most companies with different teams working remotely on different days, which has the bonus of enabling social distancing and mitigating risk by distributing and rotating the workforce.

In time, companies will shed the burden of long leases and look for a compromise to have the right amount of space for a new work routine.

Shared and flexible office spaces are bound to see enhanced attention. Before Covid, the global flexible, co-working and shared office market accounted for 5% of all office space with an estimated value of $26 billion, showing 15% year-on-year growth over the past five years. The reasons for moving to flexible office solutions have been boosted by this pandemic but remain consistent. Employers enjoy a reduced investment in office space, a reduced cost in facilities management and eliminate the unnecessary burden of a long-term liability on their balance sheet all while enjoying the benefits of a functional office – including great coffee and guaranteed regular sanitisation – that gives employees a place to go and a sense of belonging.

Stefano Migliore is the Executive Director at SiSebenza.

Published on HR Future