Returning to the office will be a case of trial and error

Socio-Technical Centre

Hannah Preston is editor of the Research and Innovation blog and podcast.

Four office workers sat apart at two desks with tape on the floor, marking out the distance

England is (currently) set to come out of lockdown on 19 July 2021, and although there’s talk of a return to the office for many, the transition is likely to be anything but smooth.

Over the last 15 months, a lot of employees who were previously office-based have found themselves having to work from home. During the first lockdown, 44% of adults in employment were working from home, compared with 12% pre-Covid-19. Whilst efforts have focussed on remote working - ensuring staff have the right equipment and thinking about the impact it might have on mental health - employers are now looking at what needs to be addressed for a safe, fair, and productive return to the office.

Last month, as part of the Adapting Offices for the Future of Work project (funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19) we hosted a webinar on the topic “returning to the office – what do we know and what do we need to know?”.

The event included an overview of what the work-from-home/office situation has been for most during the pandemic, and then talks and discussion from our expert panel: Angela Barnicle, Chief Officer - Asset Management & Regeneration, Leeds City Council; Ruth Hynes, Senior Design Researcher – Atkins; and Daniel Jones, Operations Director - Story Contracting. Here is a summary of some of the main discussion points from the webinar:

Fairness for employees

Many employers are using lockdown as an opportunity to offer agile working, allowing people to be more flexible with the hours they work and where. This isn’t possible for a lot of workers however, such as those who are frontline workers.

Even within one organisation, you may have employees in lots of different work situations where they will need to either work onsite, work from home or work remotely. The focus needs to be on delivering the service first and where employees need to be based to do that, and then employers should ensure that wherever that employee needs to work is the best work environment they can possibly give.

Employers should be transparent and honest with their employees about what kind of flexibility or choice they can expect.

The hybrid model isn’t (currently) working

We don’t have the right technology, behaviours, or environment currently for hybrid working (where some members of the team are working from home and others are in the office). For example, with a training session, meeting or workshop, where does the facilitator centre the conversation – at those physically in the room, or those online?

Until we have the right kit and behaviours, there will be a substandard experience. One of the groups – whether it’s those online or those in the room – will suffer as a consequence of attention being directed at the other group.

Logistics and office design

There is a lot to consider with the office design – which spaces will be used for quiet, “heads down” working; which will be used for formal meetings; and which for informal collaborations, for example. What is needed for better acoustics if people are going to continue having video calls in the office? Is hot-desking the right option? Do staff need lockers so personal items are not kept out? How can you ensure the best kind of ventilation in a building?

Relationship building and retaining talent

Although the pandemic may not have damaged existing business relationships, it has made it harder to build new ones and establish rapport with new colleagues and contacts. This can be difficult for recruitment as well, particularly with onboarding (introducing a new employee into an organisation).

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Younger employees/those at the start of their career benefit more from being in an office or onsite. They pick up important learnings through watching those around them and having interactions with more established colleagues, and being able to ask questions casually rather than having to send an email/request a chat through Teams or Zoom etc. In-person interactions are needed to establish rapport.

Although some employees may prefer working from home and say that their individual outputs have increased during the pandemic, employees also have a responsibility to the wider business to pass on their knowledge to others and nurture the next generation of talent. This is much harder to do when people are working from home in silo.

Change of mindset

Returning to the office isn’t just a change in physical space, but a change in mindset as well. Employees need to be prepared that things won’t be the same as before, pre-pandemic, and that they may also lose some of the flexibility they might have experienced during lockdown. More strict planning may be needed now, for example, having a monthly rota of who’s in the office when.

Give time for the transition

Moving back into the office, whether it’s the same building or a new space, isn’t going to be a success overnight. There needs to be a realistic transition period. Employers will be looking at ways to keep the existing positives from the increased agility, whilst also figuring out how best to keep delivering a service, and also allowing for social infrastructure (e.g. employees now needing to find dog-walkers, or sort out after school clubs, or deciding on new ways to commute) to be back in a certain geography.

There is a balancing act, with losses and gains, that companies need to consider: savings made on overheads with people working from home versus a loss of innovation and collaboration; improved mental-health for some with a better work-life balance versus increased loneliness for others; reduced carbon footprint with less travel versus a lack of rapport building with clients through online-only interactions.

It will take a lot of trial and error. The key is to keep trying things rather than doing nothing, and being honest and transparent with your workforce so that expectations are managed and trust remains.

The research team – Dr Matthew Davis, Dr Helen Hughes, Dr Emma Gritt, Professor Chiahuei Wu, Dr Hannah Collis and Linhao Fang (Leeds University Business School), Professor Simon Rees (School of Civil Engineering) – will continue to explore how best to return to the office, how much space is needed, and what type of space should be retained. They are gathering an ongoing evidence base to help organisations make informed decisions about who to bring back into offices, when, and under what work patterns, and will be sharing their findings.

To find out more about the research, visit the project webpage. You can also view a recording of the webinar and sign-up to the mailing list to receive project updates and information about future events.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.