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Building Without Blueprints: Why business leaders need to define the post-Covid workplace

By: Tim Oldman, CEO, Leesman

“The world of work has changed forever” – aren’t we all tired of hearing this? This line has been peddled in headlines and conference stages around the world for decades. The way we work will always change and workplaces will always be in beta. And so they should. The events of 2020 have merely, yet thankfully, put a spotlight on the workplace arena.

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Tim Oldman, CEO, Leesman

While some are boarding their trains and buses again, commuting into spaces they left behind more than 18 months ago, there are others who are continuing to work from home, and for many, there’s still uncertainty about what frequency of either will occur moving forward. 

Certain industries have had the option of working from home for years, and as smartphones have become backup computers, commuters have been working on trains and buses, and checking their emails after dinner. So, other than the obvious – default working across the board, with no option of other environments for the majority – what has the pandemic changed? And why do business leaders need to define the workplace, now?

We know working from home works

It has become clear that almost any office job can be done from home. The majority of organisations had to close their offices almost overnight in Spring 2020, and while there was mass disruption at many levels, the home working experience held up well for employees on the whole. The pandemic revealed that we could rapidly pivot, much quicker than anticipated, when we’re pushed. 

Assertions that “working from home could never work for my business” fall flatter that they ever have, now the evidence has arrived. Leesman’s ongoing study into home working experience (currently based on 221,841 global employee responses) shows that 84% of employees feel they can work productively from home, in office environments only 64% felt the same way. This is one of the things COVID-19 has changed for employees – their expectations. It’s no longer a question of: why should I work from home? It’s now: why shouldn’t I?

We have a situation where each employee has had a taste of working from a totally unique, personalised space, and understandably they’re satisfied with it, on the whole. The data suggests that the home office is supporting workers better than the average office does. This might, at face value, be good for perceived productivity, but it’s a huge risk for the future of the office as we know it.

But there’s a catch

Leadership may be tempted to abandon the office completely, save on workplace overheads and have workforces work entirely from home, cutting expenditure. Unfortunately, nothing is ever that simple. Anything that sounds too good to be true probably is. 

There are a lot of benefits that come from working with colleagues in an office. Of course, there’s the boost to morale, the speed of communication and the opportunity for spontaneous collaboration. Furthermore, the buildings themselves help create an idea of a company culture and brand identity, which makes employees identify more with their business, and ultimately boosts staff retention. It’s also important to remember that while home working, as an experiment, seems to have passed the test, it does not work for everyone. Office space needs to be available for those who aren’t supported with working from home – each employee is different and they need different things from their workplace.

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The long-term effects of working from home are yet to be seen, as social capital takes time to deplete, and company cultures will survive in the memory of those who used to work in an office. It’s difficult to tell what a business will look like when, years down the line, every employee has been hired and worked entirely remotely. Already some employees, particularly those under the age of 25, looking for mentorship, are yearning to come back to the office.

Option A, B, or C?

So, what should a good CEO do? They have probably reduced their options to three: ditch the office entirely; ask employees to come back as soon as it’s safe to do so; or create a hybrid mix of the two. Leesman data clearly shows that the latter of these is the most popular with employees, with 48% of respondents stating they would prefer to work 2-3 days in the office. Employers who create an outstanding workplace will find that their employees want to spend the majority of their time there. Build it well, and they will come.

What’s more, it’s also the option that allows a business leader to be a trailblazer. In a recent study by Deloitte across 3,500 senior leaders, 61% are now reimagining work, rather than merely optimising it. All pre-existing business models and processes are up for debate.

While we might have heard about these options for a while now, there’s no well-trodden ground here. It’s a whole new environment, and business owners will have to take risks. The best business leaders will be honest and open about the speculative nature of their plans, and not stubbornly stick to one plan, whatever the cost. The stakes are higher than ever, but so are the potential rewards. 

Find balance, win talent

In order to move forward, business leaders will have to lead their team into the unknown and find the way for themselves. Clear communication, consultation and intuition will be the pathfinder CEO’s compass. Somewhere the needle will stop between a wholly remote work experience, and one that resembles the old 9 to 5. And that needle will stop at different places for each individual organisation – we all entered the pandemic with a unique set of strength and susceptibilities, it would be naive to think we can all come out of it on the exact same path.

Offices certainly has a place in the future of work, but these spaces need to be different from the ones that were there before. The findings are a wake-up call. The office of yesterday has been exposed as outdated and inefficient, and now employees know that too. 

The home has become the new benchmark against which the office of the future will be judged. Rather than being fearful, business leaders should see this as a once in a generation opportunity to attract the best talent around by offering better post-pandemic work models than other businesses


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