How we must entice people back to the office post-pandemic
Biophilic design in a Singapore parking lot. Photography by Danist
It’s strange to think that one day we might be telling our grand-kids that there were these things called ‘offices’. I imagine it might go something like this:
Offices were big, energy guzzling buildings in the middle of hectic, overcrowded, and polluted urban spaces. To get to them we would wake up early (earlier than natural for many people) and travel on fast moving metal tins (with windows kindly added so we could have a nice view as our faces were squashed against them).
After this; we would walk across a train station (in reality, much like the stampede scene in The Lion King) before we got onto another moving metal tin, this time underground, so with no views. You would spend your time trying to avoid eye contact and navigating away from the strangers armpit that you keep getting pressed against.
Finally, an hour after leaving the comfort (relative nirvana) of our homes, we arrived at ‘The Office’ (not be confused with the humorous sitcom of the same name – this Office was not a laughing matter). For some reason - officially or not - we had to stay for a rigid 9 hours (often longer) trying to be productive amidst constant distractions. You stumble about from one meeting room to another lost in the waves of details. If you worked in an open plan office, many of these problems were compounded instead of reduced. 50% of the people you worked with in the office were clearly burned out. Spent.
Then - you guessed it grand-child - we reversed our steps. Back to the moving metal tin and stampedes. You can see where I’m going with this. Believe it or not some companies are clamouring to get back to this lifestyle.
But most of us don’t want to.
A recent YouGov survey reported that ‘fewer than four in ten want to leave their house to go to work’. A Slack/Future Forum survey of 9,000 workers in 2020 showed that 72% of workers preferred a hybrid office/home approach, 15% home only, and a mere 8% office only. The survey showed that:
“Remote work is a net positive”, with “knowledge workers reporting higher levels of satisfaction when compared with office work, for work-life balance, stress and anxiety levels, productivity and overall satisfaction.”
Pretty damning right?
A huge 75% are even willing to take a 14% cut in salary to stay working remotely.
As with everything though, there is another side of the story.
There are clearly big upsides to communal, IRL workplaces as well. The Slack survey also showed that “the experience of remote work varies across job roles, genders, seniority and other factors. For instance, experienced remote employees tend to report higher levels of satisfaction and productivity than their less-experienced peers.”
There are plenty of good things about a workplace. Enhanced creativity, ease of conversation, water cooler moments and not cutting out mid-sentance, like a malfunctioning robot because your Wi-Fi is playing up. It is a better - richer even - way of connecting with each other. Indranil Roy, Executive Director, Human Capital practice, Deloitte Consulting puts this well:
“Over time, face-to-face interaction is required to facilitate collaboration, build relationships, solve complex challenges and generate ideas.”
So, the challenge it seems, is convincing those people who don’t want to return to the office full time or at all, that there’s advantages. We need to entice people back into the office, to a sufficient degree, for one or two days a week, to ensure we don’t lose the extra opportunities for creativity and other benefits of IRL interaction. The companies that understand this will attract the best talent. Vaibhav Gujral: Partner at McKinsey & Company lays it out:
“Organisations that get it right may emerge from the crisis ahead in the war for talent, with policies that employees prefer, and workplaces that are purpose-designed to be vibrant, foster collaboration and productivity for the new way of working.”
But we now know that we could work on a desert island if it has a good Wi-Fi connection! Bye bye commute...
The cat is well and truly out of the bag now, and it’s a tropical cat with turquoise water and white sand beaches.
So how do we make the workplace as appealing as Bermuda?
At least for a couple of days a week.
Here’s three ways.
As if mental health wasn’t important enough pre Covid - with rates of stress at an all-time high – people are facing even bigger problems now. Figures from the Princes’ Trust Youth Index are showing 1 in 4 young people in the UK have felt ‘unable to cope’ during the pandemic. A harrowing statistic and unfortunately one of many similar stories.
People can be anxious about returning to work at the best of times – be that a sick day or a short holiday – let alone with the resulting impact of COVID and the length of time that we’ve been away. many will have experienced trauma with close friends and relatives having been isolated, extremely ill, or even passing away.
Moreover, the fear of catching Covid will mean that levels of anxiety about returning to work and trusting colleagues to behave appropriately will also be high, which is likely to give rise to higher levels of absenteeism.
All of this will affect people’s ability to feel mentally well and work productively, so you need to think about how we can prioritise people’s mental health through effective planning. You can do this through offering therapy, fitness classes, guided meditation, stress training and the creation of dedicated wellness areas in the office.
Showing a high degree of care for your employees’ mental health will pay dividends in the long run. One of our clients at Yinshi said of their Work Pod #1: “The most valuable thing about the Pod for us? The message it sent out; that we not only care about your mental health but we trust you to manage it in the best way you know how.” Even if that means taking 30 minutes out of the day to meditate in private.
There is going to be a significant flight to premium style offices post pandemic, and high-touch, quality experiences will become the norm as companies reinvest savings from downsizing office space back into office design. High end luxury work spaces like Convene that put hospitality and exceptional customer experience front and centre are likely to become the norm.
So what are some ways of improving the office experience without needing to give the entire floor-plan to an interior design agency?
Biophilic design is a perfect example where we use plants to deliver nature inspired endorphin boosts.
Some office art is a sure-fire way to get on your teams’ Facebook walls; if employees love it, they will share it with the world.
Wellness areas and facilities for self-soothing practices such as meditation will help entice forward thinking people in. The work environment is, according to Consultancy-me.com, ‘one of the top pluses or minuses cited, and specifically their physical environment’ when choosing a company to work for and ideas like these not only spread and enhance the reputation of your company, they make us excited about coming into a cool, inspiring place.
Excited enough to even share it with other top talent.
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how,’” Victor Frankl.
People are more motivated, happier and inspired when they have a purpose, and quite often this extends to their company’s vision.
Commonly our purpose becomes defined by our careers so its incredibly important to reflect employees values. Whilst this is a trend we’ve known about for a while, with 74% of candidates wanting a job where they feel like their work matters, it’s been heightened by Covid 19.
Consider what we have experienced and how this changes our priorities:
- We’ve got to spend more time with our kids.
- We’ve reconnected with the community and helped strangers.
- We’ve seen the environmental benefits of slowing down.
- We’ve come together to clap for causes that are bigger than any individual.
- We’ve shifted our priorities.
The lockdown has given us time to think about what matters most in life and for many, it’s more than just money. In a recent panel discussion, Charlie Mayfield, former John Lewis Partnership chairman commented: “My view is that social purpose is going to be of huge importance to many more people. [Work] is the place where people get on in life. It’s not just about money – people make money and achieve life goals through it.”
What else is more important now? Sustainability. Sustainable businesses not only protect against the future but they perform better. In 2017, Unilever’s ‘sustainable living brands grew 46% faster than the rest of the business and delivered 70% of Unilever’s turnover growth.’
How is your company going to do its bit? Not only in terms of sustainability but providing value and in making your team proud of where they work. You can help them to be mentally strong, productive, innovative and 100% ready to come back to the office; even if it's only for a couple of days a week.
The rewards will surely be paid off by company growth made by healthier humans - with the headspace to make decisions for once - that our acting in the best interest of your business and our amazing planet.
And that’s a better story to tell the grand-kids, isn’t it?
Join the conversation and tell me your view here.