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To get employees back in the office, business leaders must do their homework

By Allison English, Deputy CEO at Leesman

As the Covid-19 recovery continues, speculation about what the post-pandemic workplace will look like continues to run rampant. For all the talk of ‘remote first’ and ‘hybrid working’, the media are increasingly spotlighting other outcomes, with some business leaders discussing an en masse, full-time return to the office. While the office can provide benefits around collaboration and a more cohesive company culture, the home-office too has its strengths.

Our research, based on the home working experiences of more than 180,000 employees globally, shows that on the whole most employees have been having a pretty good experience working from home. By the end of 2020, when more than 48,000 of these home working respondents told us how often they want to work from their offices post-COVID, only 15% want to return to their main workplace 4-5 days per week, meaning 85% of these employees want to work remotely two or more days a week. Business leaders now find themselves in a difficult situation – how can they get employees back to the office without snatching back the trust granted to them when they were mandated to work from home so many months ago? The stakes are high; organisations who do try to go ‘back to normal’ face the very real risk of having their talent poached by firms that offer more flexible approaches, as COVID is not only causing business to reassess and reprioritise – individuals are doing the same.

Why we can never go back to normal

The mass move to working from home necessitated by the pandemic has brought about a sea change in work culture. Not everyone was able to work effectively at home – away from their colleagues, working from a make-shift desk or perched on the edge of a sofa balancing a laptop – but humans are amazingly resilient and adapt over time, and they’ve had plenty of time to get used to working from home. A year and a bit on, 83% of employees who have responded to Leesman’s home working survey feel their home environment enables them to work productively, while only 63% of office workers from the Leesman office dataset can say the same.

Perhaps they have gotten used to chatting with colleagues via Zoom and Slack, and that makeshift desk has been upgraded to a dynamic home-office set up. Maybe formal dress codes and the daily commute seem outdated in 2021. It could even be the convenience of doing laundry on a Wednesday morning. Whatever the reasons, it’s clear that most people would now like to work from home at least some of the time.

Time to change the conversation

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Setting aside the benefits of working from home, our data also suggests there are some key work components that suffer when employees aren’t together in the office. Learning from others and informal social interaction have been hit hard working from home, with these activities among others being better supported in many office environments.

These office benefits are widely recognised, hence the growing demand for companies to provide hybrid solutions. Employees know the benefits of being in the office as well as the perks of working from home, so simply showcasing the areas where an office may shine, such as supporting collaborative work and training, isn’t going to help business leaders entice employees back to vacant workplaces.

It’s time to change the conversation. Organisations need to talk less about all the ways the office is “better” than home and instead explore how the office can incorporate some of the benefits of working from home that many have enjoyed in the past 15+ months. If business leaders want the most out of their employees, they need to understand what employees in 2021 need from their offices and how the office can actually drive desired behaviours.

While more space for collaboration is often a feature of contemporary office designs, dedicating future workplaces to collaboration alone is a huge risk. Leesman results have shown that only 28% of those surveyed in office environments describe their role as either collaborative or highly collaborative, highlighting that the variety of spaces is key, while only 33% are happy with the quiet rooms on offer at their workplace. With the average home supporting employees better than the average office, office design must incorporate some of the well-supported aspects of home working, with areas for individual work with acoustic privacy in addition to spaces that facilitate collaboration.

While the physical aspects of the work environment are hugely important, there are other equally important changes brought upon by COVID, like increased flexibility around when employees work, that employees also want to maintain as part of how they work in future. Many employees proved they could do their work while balancing home schooling and a host of other challenges, and while most breathed a big sigh of relief when schools reopened, control over when and where to work has given many people a newfound balance in their lives they are not willing to give up. It’s time to take stock of work and workplace strategies from a holistic viewpoint, which have to be driven by leadership and focused on maintaining the balance between the organisation’s needs with those of the people who make up that organisation.

If business leaders want people back in the office, they need to identify what employees need in that post-pandemic office, and they must have systems in place to keep a pulse on how employee sentiment changes as the world of work continues to evolve. Understanding what employees need to support them in their roles and identifying what they’ve struggled with the past year are some first crucial steps, but employers also then have to use that information to craft policies and strategies that specifically address their organisation’s and their people’s needs and requirements, recognising that a one-size-fits-all policy will surely fail. If employees have been successful working from home, the challenge for employers is to leverage data to identify what has been great about that experience and where the gaps are, using that data to inform the office of the future. Throughout 2020, employees saw their homes become an office. Perhaps in 2021, the office will feel more like home.

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