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What is the long-term future of physical offices?

What is the long-term future of physical offices?

Almost overnight, many employees swapped office desks for workspaces closer to home. As the global situation remains ever-changing, it seems likely remote access will continue to be an everyday reality for the near term. But with the end of 2020 now approaching, thoughts are starting to turn towards longer-term planning — and in particular — the role of offices.

Predictions of a fully remote future seem extreme. At the same time, however, the probability that the world will return to how we worked before is low; as pointed out by leading digital consultant, David C. Baker, we can’t expect that “the pandemic will have no impact on what employment looks like.”

Some innovators have tried to help plot the way forward by offering up their own visions for the new working reality — see the BBC’s day in the life of Laila. But for most companies, the best path remains uncertain. To ensure they head in the right direction, they’ll need better understanding of the pros and cons, and which elements are essential to create the most productive, engaging, and sustainable company mix.

The case for retaining offices

Probably the best-known argument for including offices into future company plans is the wider economic impact. As previously noted by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), maintaining physical workspaces will be essential to prevent city centres from becoming “ghost towns”; with use of offices driving much-needed revenue for letting companies and the countless independent firms that depend on passing trade from workers. But helping the financial recovery isn’t the only reason to consider keeping an ongoing office presence.

Rapid transformation of traditional business norms has highlighted several areas where purely digital operations don’t necessarily measure up to real-world work. And key among them is the difficulty of keeping employees engaged, at a distance.

Where some workers have thrived in the new remote climate, others have struggled with the sudden loss of office-based advantages; especially working in teams. In 2019, Buffer reported loneliness was already common for 19% of remote workers, and for many employees, strict social distancing measures have only heightened feelings of isolation. This is highly concerning not only in terms of overall employee wellbeing, but also due to the huge ramifications on performance – with 60% of workers saying mental health directly affects their productivity.

At a wider organisational level, there are also sizeable negatives for workforce connection and collaboration. However smart and streamlined video conferencing software may be, it’s no true replacement for face-to-face meetings that allow for organic idea sharing and innovation, or those spontaneous moments of ‘water-cooler’ conversation. As observed by architectural expert Professor Sadie Morgan; taking risks and thinking creatively “generally happens in real groups, when you can see people directly and be in the same space.” That’s not to mention the ability of physical workspaces to help support other areas of business success; including helping to reinforce company culture among office workers and enabling continuous learning through personal observation, for existing and new employees.

As they plot out what shape their working practices should take in the new different, it will therefore be important for organisations to factor in the advantages of the traditional office, and how they can be used to deliver maximum benefits for company and people.

Remote work: the plus points

For all its drawbacks, however, the great working from home experiment has also driven positive results that shouldn’t be overlooked; not least a swift change in attitudes towards different ways of working. From a logistical perspective, many companies found that making the jump to remote work wasn’t as challenging as anticipated; with nearly 70% managing the transition within a week of nationwide lockdown.

In part, that’s down to the host of advanced technologies firms have harnessed to make the switch smoother; such as cloud-based networks, digital teamwork tools and, of course, Zoom. But employee adaptability has also played a vital role. As well as efficiently adjusting to new tech, workers have proven they can be relied on to maintain their output; in fact, research reveals 72% of companies have been pleasantly surprised by remote productivity rates.

And it’s also worth noting that a high proportion of employees have enjoyed the enhanced versatility that remote work gives them; with 32% listing flexible schedules as the top benefit, followed by the freedom to work from any location (26%). Similarly, cutting down the daily commute — named by 21% of workers as a key advantage on its own — has allowed many to achieve better work life balance, particularly when it comes to making time for family (11%). So, it’s perhaps unsurprising that according to some studies, up to nine in ten of those who have dialled in from home would like to work remotely more frequently in future.

The ultimate answer to the office question is ‘yes’: physical workspaces are still needed and should be part of the working future. The co-operation, connection and stimulation that offices offer is critical to the continued performance and profitability of every company, as well as the happiness of their employees. But, at the same time, where and how we work must also change in line with ever-evolving workforce needs and COVID-19 safety measures.

To ensure workers are safe and productive, organisations will have to ensure their plans embrace the new age of flexibility; taking the positive learnings from remote working and blending them with the key essentials of real-world working to make a powerful and durable combination.

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