Returning to work: what do employees actually want?

Sep 21 2020 by Nicola Hunt Print This Article

As the pandemic forces organisations to adopt of new ways of working, the way that people work and the role of offices is undergoing profound change. Perhaps the only thing we can say with any certainty is that things won’t be going back to the way they used to be. So what are offices going to look like in a post-pandemic world? How can they become safe and productive spaces? We spoke to Beth Hampson, Commercial Director at The Argyll Club, a business club offering premium workspaces and services in 38 Central London locations.

Q. Apparently up to 60% of the workforce are back in the office now, but that’s a lot of people still working from home. What’s your take on where we are at?

The return to work will obviously present hurdles to business leaders. But these are not unsurmountable and this period could even be an opportunity to re-calibrate the employer-employee relationship and reset our workplaces for the better.

What we’ve seen over the last few months is one of the biggest shifts in working relationships for generations. Flexibility – the watch-word now for many HR professionals – has proved its worth, because some businesses were able to move online almost overnight. But now, with summer holidays over and schools reopening, business leaders must go further and use this juncture to assess how their employees’ desires have changed and how their workplace can be adjusted to accommodate. Doing so could incentivise teams to return to the office as well as create a healthier and more productive working week.

Q. What is changing?

Naturally, any business leader should ensure that the necessary health and safety measures are in place before teams re-enter the office. Sanitiser stations, cleaning regimes and PPE provision are now commonplace across the office industry. However, employees’ concerns post-lockdown go beyond this.

Our data has revealed a surge in people looking to cycle to and from the office. In fact, 80% of businesses have enquired about a workspace with access to bike storage and shower facilities since the lockdown. Before the pandemic, the ability to cycle to work may have been just a ‘nice to have’ option. However, with many people reimagining their working lives, a cycle-based commute is now key. We’ve already seen many employers listening to this and start to look for offices with bike racks, showers and access to ‘Boris Bikes’. Sadiq Khan’s StreetSpace initiative, which extended London’s cycle-lanes, also recognises this need. So when considering a back to work strategy, it’s worth considering whether your team would actually prefer the option of a healthier commute.

Q. Are you seeing any other changes beyond a greater emphasis on wellness?

Yes, we are seeing the very concept of an office change in reaction to employee demand. For example, whilst surveying our clients during the lockdown, we found that 75% anticipated working remotely more regularly, 70% predicted less face-to-face interaction and 36% felt they would need greater agility. In reaction, employers have been reassessing their workplaces to see how they could incorporate more flexible working strategies without removing the productivity and creativity benefits that a workplace brings.

Q. There has been a big focus on the benefits of home working, but what about younger people who don’t have a spare room for an office and who like being around people in an office environment which they find stimulating?

This is very true. I was discussing this with one of our clients recently, John Harrison, Director of Harrison:Fraser. His view is that working from home is all very well, but there is no replacement for the innovative spark and camaraderie of being together in one place. According to John, remote working has numerous benefits, but the office still plays a key role for them in recruiting talent and unlocking creative ideas through teamwork.

Q. How are companies going to get the balance right?

Many businesses like John’s are reimagining how they view the office. Rather than a long-term contract with teams coming in every day, they are harnessing ‘day offices’. It’s a simple concept: an office just for the day, whenever and wherever you need it, which allows you to seamlessly transition from home to office throughout the week.

John says: “a day office offers us the best of both worlds in terms of agile working. It means we can be together as a team for two days a week in the office, collaborating on projects, brainstorming ideas, meeting clients, mentoring new recruits and, equally important, socialising at the end of the day. We can then spend the rest of the week working virtually.”

Q. What’s your final take-away?

The office doesn’t have to be the old, fixed long-term concept. There is a productive and positive path forward for both employers and employees. This could be the perfect time to pause, assess what your employees really want and make sure your office supports the needs of your workforce. Is returning to the status quo actually the right thing for your team? Or could you adjust some elements of the working week, whether it’s the commute, the type of office or the way you meet with your team?

This phase of the pandemic is an opportunity for us to collectively redefine what it means to provide a workplace, and there are benefits to be reaped for employers who harness this period for positive change.