Workplace and productivity in 2020 and beyond

10 December 2020

Why do so many people seem to have concluded that the office offers little benefit over working from home? We believe that there are some obvious short-term explanations.

Reports of the death of offices have been greatly exaggerated. That is not to deny that momentous changes are taking place which will have ramifications across many aspects of our lives – including our work and our workplaces. Underlying trends that have been playing out in the background have been accelerated and highlighted by the pandemic; meanwhile new issues have arisen which may – or may not – become a permanent part of our lives.

The fact that many of us have spent several months working from home moderately effectively does not overturn decades of research which concludes that people work more productively having built mutual trust and cooperation, facilitated by physical proximity. So why do so many people seem to have concluded that the office offers little benefit over working from home? We believe that there are some obvious short-term explanations.

For most organisations the immediate response to the COVID crisis was to go into “emergency” mode, trying to keep basic business activity going - generally focussed on supporting existing clients and projects. In many cases this involves executing the types of work which are most suited to working remotely, which require only the “lower level“ workplace needs of the employee to be met.

In this situation, consider the position of the employee. Provided they have access to appropriate technology and connectivity, they are freed from their daily commute, which is replaced by their exercise of choice or more time sleeping. They no longer have to deal with the distractions or the politics of the office, allowing them to focus fully on the tasks at hand. Their home study is personalised with photos of the dog that is curled contentedly at their feet while they sip their preferred choice of morning coffee from their favourite mug. Video conferencing allows them to contact colleagues and clients – individually or en masse – from the comfort of their desk. An end to tedious business trips across timezones means jetlag is a thing of the past, to the benefit of the planet and the expense line of a budget under pressure from the sharpest economic decline in human history.

Provided the individuals concerned are lucky enough to have a home environment that supports their work, it isn’t surprising that – at first sight - homeworking may be deemed (and in some cases actually be) more productive. The qualification here is important, though… there will be many for whom the description above is a far cry from their homeworking experience! Young children, small apartments in shared accommodation or inadequate internet connections can all conspire to hamper the most determined homeworker.

Before concluding that demand for office space is inevitably set to decline, we should recognise that the homeworking experiment is still in its early stages. Employees and organisations may be able to survive – for a time – working from home or some other remote location. For some people, it may indeed form a part, or conceivably the majority, of their future working practices.

But as organisations move from ‘survival mode’ to refocus on growth and development, we will see greater emphasis placed on teamwork, inter-departmental collaboration and innovative thinking. Building new relationships with colleagues and clients is easier to do in person. How well most people or organisations would fare if asked to work remotely for an extended period has yet to be seen, and the benefits of the office environment may yet become more apparent.

Some organisations will undoubtedly downsize or close offices – such actions are a normal feature of recessions. Many will experiment with “going virtual” to some degree - and such experiments will be watched with interest. Others may decentralise, moving parts of their organisations out of major cities into suburban or smaller town locations, to enable cost saving and respond to emerging preferences for working in locations closer to home.

Equally, many large organisations also need to attract the best young staff entering at junior levels who typically want to live, work and socialise in city centres – for whom homeworking is neither an option nor an attraction. They want to work in a vibrant office environment, with access to a variety of senior staff with whom they can interact to develop their skills and careers – none of which can be done entirely over Zoom.

What seems clear is that flexible working is likely to remain at least part of the solution in future. From where we sit today, it seems hard to believe that we will universally return to a “9-5, 5 days a week” life in the office. Initial findings from our research, both before and during the pandemic, indicate that a hybrid working environment (a mix of office and homeworking), allows employees to be their most productive.

But the pandemic has highlighted some important lessons that we need to consider when thinking about the future role of the workplace. The office will need to work harder to justify its place in our working lives, and in the cost structure of our companies. This means that office design and fitout will have to:

  • Focus more explicitly on better meeting the real and varied needs and desires of a wider range of employees
  • Recognise that different personalities have different wants and needs, even if doing the same type of work
  • Accept that high density, open plan, unallocated desking may have a part to play, but is rarely the optimum environment for any individual or type of work
  • Provide a range of environments that truly provide employees with a workplace – or series of workplaces – that positively enhance and support their productivity
  • Utilise technology to facilitate workspace personalisation whilst ensuring that employees are fully supported and connected to each other and to the collective intelligence of the organisation
  • Accommodate the desire for collective endeavour and collaboration whilst recognising that in knowledge industries, a high proportion of the work is actually best undertaken in a quiet environment protected from noise and interruption

Above all, we should remember the journey is as important as the destination, and there is a constant need to evolve in search of the optimum. Far from being dead, we are entering one of the most exciting periods ever seen in the evolution of the workplace.

Read our full report, Productivity, the workplace and Covid-19 here.

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