At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote working made sense to employers because it helped them maintain productivity while reducing infection rates between employees. They often had little choice anyway, especially once governments began imposing local and national lockdowns. But despite a steep learning curve in the beginning (scrambling to set up software and project management systems, etc) remote working proved successful for many businesses.
Many employees saw the benefits too. They found that it allowed for a better work-life balance, eradicating the need for expensive and tiring commutes and freeing up time that would usually be spent preparing for work. Many also self-reported that they felt more productive and focused throughout the working day. Several high-profile studies supported this.
Once infection rates started dropping however, businesses faced a dilemma: continue allowing people to work remotely or reel them back into the office.
Some companies abandoned the idea of having an office altogether, switching to an entirely remote workforce. Others went hybrid and split the working week between the office and the home. There are also companies who are expecting a return to the office full time.
For companies trying to win employees back into the office, at least on a part-time basis, what can they do to make that return more inviting?
Why is the office important?
There’s nothing quite like meeting face-to-face. Most of us have experience using video calls or online systems like Teams or Asana to communicate or project plan with colleagues, clients and managers which is great. Collaboration, complex problem solving and keeping to creative briefs, however, are often easier when everyone is physically in the same room together.
Remember too that remote working isn’t ideal for everyone. Employees living in shared accommodation for example may find it difficult to concentrate. Others may not have adequate space to work efficiently or may struggle being isolated from others.
Some jobs just cannot be done 100% remotely either. Central office locations may be necessary depending on the nature of the business and the industry it operates in.
And some companies are now using their office space as an extension of the company’s mission statement, using it as part of the branding and to attract customers and new talent to showcase a commitment to employee wellness and community.
But whether this is enough for employees remains to be seen. Personnel may grow frustrated and resentful at returning to the office if they feel they work better from home, especially if they’ve proved to be reliable and trustworthy during the pandemic. Companies have spent a lot of time and money adapting to remote working, and it may seem counter-intuitive to employees if those processes are being rescinded.
Create an engaging work environment
Underestimate office design at your peril because it can significantly affect how employees feel about their job and influence how their productivity. It can also support brand messaging and company ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance).
One example of re-thinking office design is Activity-Based Working or ABW. ABW creates zones within the office rather than designating specific desks to individuals. For example, there might be a collaboration area with big tables, bright lights and a coffee bar available for group meetings. Next to this there might be a video conferencing room with screens. Usually, there’ll be a quiet area for more focused work in silence and maybe even an ECO:POD where employees can exercise to beat the afternoon slump.
ABW uses a hot-desking approach, although some companies supplement this with by using desk-hoteling software. This gives employees flexibility in booking desks for the days they’re in the office and for the specific areas relating to their tasks. This prevents desks sitting empty for extended periods and, contrary to what some employers think, can reduce the amount of floor space an office needs.
ABW also gives employees agency over their working practice by letting them choose the most suitable ‘neighbourhood’ or ‘zone’ to complete their tasks. If you have an open office, where noise and distractions can be a problem, then this can help placate employees who feel they work better in the relative quiet of their own home.
If ABW isn’t for your company, then you could also look at Biophilic Design. This approach brings nature indoors using plants, trees, large windows, water features, natural scents and sounds, and natural design elements like curves and domes. It also takes advantage of natural materials like stone and wood.
Creating a visually pleasing and engaging environment can help make people more likely to return to the office, but it’s about more than just achieving an Insta-worthy aesthetic. Studies have found that natural light reduces the number of headaches, eyestrain and impaired vision in a typical office by 84% and that plants can achieve a 15% increase in productivity while reducing background noise. And, of course, it makes a more pleasant space for employees to spend time. No one ever returns to the office thinking, oh great! I’ve really missed this muted corporate colour scheme, the insipid motivational wall hangings and fizzing strip lighting.
Provide a Place to Work During the Energy Crisis
With household bills rising rapidly, some employees may see a return to the office as one way of reducing electricity and gas bills. Providing a well-lit and well-heated space during the winter months and then introducing some of the incentives we’ve listed below could help people return more quickly.
Created in the 1920s by the Ford Motor Company, the 9 to 5 working model is now starting to show its age. It was designed to benefit factory owners and assembly line workers but, a century later, most of us aren’t working on production lines but in a service economy, and 9 to 5 no longer reflects modern life. Most families now require both parents to be working. This often makes caring for children and vulnerable adults difficult and finding care expensive. Flexible working can help.
Flexible working doesn’t mean a free-for-all but describes a working pattern that deviates in some manner from the more traditional 40-hour working week. This could be reducing a person’s hours so they can pick their children up from school or letting an employee study alongside their job part-time. It can also mean starting and finishing work earlier or later than usual. For example, a person working 8 am until 4 pm or 10 am until 6 pm. Some people may prefer working the same number of hours but reducing how many days this is split over for example, Tuesday until Friday and taking Mondays off. Flexible working also includes remote or hybrid working arrangements or job sharing with another employee, etc.
Employees clearly benefit from a more personalised approach to their working week, but employers can benefit too. It can prevent talented and dedicated employees from leaving the company for a competitor or leaving the industry entirely. With so many other companies now embracing flexible working, businesses that are unwilling to adapt to a more flexible system may find themselves at a disadvantage when recruiting.
It’s worth mentioning too that stress doesn’t magically disappear when an employee clocks in, either. If someone is worried about childcare or having to fit in an important appointment, then this will likely affect their focus and productivity. Giving workers some degree of flexibility over their schedule gives employees one less thing to worry about when they’re on the job.
Flexible working helps reduce the amount of time employees spend commuting to work either by cutting the number of days a person spends in the office or by allowing them to travel outside peak hours. Hybrid working can be a useful middle ground for employers and employees to settle on.
Flexible working can reduce office overheads too. Fewer desks will mean more space for other things and could even allow offices to reduce the size they’re renting. An activity-based workplace set-up could support with this by making it easier to manage the layout.
Kornferry says companies can create a fear of missing or FOMO by giving incentives to employees. If companies are struggling to lure workers back into the office, then using the carrot rather than the stick approach may help. Blackhawk Network, an e-commerce payment platform investigated the ‘workplace preferences of more than 3000 Americans’ and found that while people wanted to work from home, they were open to returning to the office given the right incentive. Incentives will vary business-to-business and budget-to-budget, but they do appear to be an effective motivator in many cases.
Google's return to the office policy wasn't very popular with employees who’d grown use to remote and hybrid working, but the company went all-out to make the transition less painful by hiring superstar Lizzo to perform a private concert. The NY Times also writes about Qualcomm, which offered several thousand employees free food, drink, and t-shirts for returning to the office. Organising wellness workshops and professional speakers for personal interest events can also help, according to the Cooking Academy.
Other companies are supplying a free lunch on Fridays, arranging group activities during work hours, setting up networking breakfasts or offering tickets to local events or shows. It could even mean paying congestion charge zone fees, subsiding public transport or offering a cycle-to-work scheme. It could also be providing a space to exercise – an ECO:POD for example, where employees can exercise to boost productivity and reduce stress whilst creating clean electricity for the business.
Workplace culture is the product of more than just employees sharing and interacting in a workspace. Whether office culture is positive or not depends on several factors, including a company’s values and traditions; the physical environment people are working in and how they feel about it; how leaders communicate with staff and whether employees feel that they can influence ideas or policies. Workplace culture can have an enormous impact on how likely staff are to return to the office and so when businesses ignore issues or allow toxicity to spread through departments it can affect whether employees want to be in the building.
It can be hard to recognise toxicity in the workplace when you’re looking from the top down, even when the problem stems from upper management issues or high-level policies. High staff turnover may be one clue that something isn’t working. Builtin writes that exit-interviews will also help employers recognise problems within the company. Certain themes may become clear and anonymous feedback forms for current employees (remote and inhouse) can also shine a light on reoccurring issues. The solution to fixing problems affecting workplace culture may not actually be difficult to fix so it’s important to identify them.
Earlier in the article, we mentioned about activity-based working and how the environment can play a role in drawing people back to the office. Re-jigging the layout can also help make teams more collaborative and social, supporting positive culture across departments and over the business.
One study in the New York Times found that seeing colleagues in person was one of the main reasons why employees wanted to return to the office. Anything that can be done to improve the collaborative and social elements of the workplace will help and could complement any incentive-offering strategies such as networking lunches or workshops.
Commuting into the office costs time and money. For central locations, like London, for example, this can amount to hundreds of hours and thousands of pounds spent throughout the year. To combat this, some larger companies have set up smaller satellite offices where employers can work together closer to where they live. This can have two benefits: attracting potential employees that may otherwise have felt unable to apply for vacant positions given the distance to the central location and making going into an office more desirable for existing employees too.
Given the current energy crisis, this option can provide a middle-ground for people who don’t want to go into the office but who may also be concerned about increasing energy bills at home, especially during the colder months. Clearly, opening additional offices won’t be in every company’s budget but there may be the option of renting remote working or collaborative spaces in other towns or cities. Many spaces can be rented per desk or per day, so it can be a great way to make ad-hoc meetings easier to plan.
Attracting remote workers back into the office won’t always be easy. The question is how far companies are willing to go if workers are unwilling to return. One way to make the transition more palatable is by coming at it from the employee’s perspective: find out why they prefer it. The answers may be easy to incorporate into the office environment.
Hybrid working is another obvious solution, representing a middle ground that accommodates both the employer’s desire for in-situ working but with some level of flexibility required by modern life. Otherwise, re-designing office space, warming or cooling the space efficiently, offering incentives to those who do come in or creating smaller offices outside major urban centres may also help.
Find out more about generating clean electricity for your office by using the power generated as your employees exercise with the ECO:POD.