When the pandemic struck in early 2020 and workplaces around the world emptied, the immediate conversation drifted to how to get employees back into their offices safely. But as it became clearer that this was not a short-term thing and homeworking was going to be the prominent feature for the foreseeable, the conversation has gently drifted to why employees would go back to their offices.
This debate seems to flit between a global tech firm announcing that they are “digital by default” (whatever that means) and stuffy financial institutions demanding employees report for duty in the office as soon as it’s deemed safe to do so. Everyone else is falling somewhere in between the two.
The risk is that organisations end up making the same mistake that has always been made when it comes to supporting work: ignoring the needs of their employees.
Outside of the occasional question on an employee engagement survey or a specialist survey as part of a workplace restack, how often do we take the time to get to understand how our people work and how we can best support them in that endeavour? All too often that conversation is infrequent and one-way.
Over the past 12 months, the team at the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management (IWFM) has been keen to see how employee attitudes to work are shifting through a series of surveys in spring and summer 2020, and again in spring this year. Any change would result in different approaches to how workplaces are managed and employee experience supported. The data has helped us map that evolving picture.
Firstly, there were some obvious bits, including people missing face-to-face interaction with colleagues (72 per cent), collaboration on work (61 per cent) and a clear separation between work and life (62 per cent). But there were lots of things we had started to enjoy when working from home, such as no commute (77 per cent), saving money travelling to work (67 per cent), more time for personal activities (53 per cent) and spending more time with family (37 per cent).
Balance that up against 75 per cent of people saying they can work from home effectively, and you’ll start to understand why there hasn’t been a stampede to return to overcrowded, salary-draining commutes.
But people do want something from their offices and many have said they are looking to do between three and four days in the office (42 per cent). Most of us would have guessed that, but what’s interesting is the shift this represents from pre-pandemic work patterns. Prior to Covid-19, two-thirds of people worked in the office five days a week; post-covid-19, that is looking to be less than one-third – a seismic change.
So that big concrete box we’ve been accustomed to trekking into day in, day out is likely to look a lot different in the future. Some days it will be very crowded (probably Tuesdays) and some days it will be ghostville (definitely Fridays). That is something organisations will have to wrestle with.
Getting to know their employees better and reviewing their own cultural approach to work will be crucial to help companies. Why? Because our data shows us that the choice to enjoy some of the aforementioned benefits of home working does not appear to be in everyone’s reach. For instance, women are twice as likely as men to say that they have no choice on their future work pattern. The data showed a link with childcare (underlining the persistence of “traditional” arrangements) and also that women with children only made up 20 per cent of those in senior positions in our study. Senior management in general were significantly more likely to be presented with a choice, just as they were more likely to have had money spent on them by their employer (for IT equipment and office furniture, for example) and to have spent money themselves while working from home.
Even with the right culture in place, some may have the choice taken away by their own home-working set-up, with those working on sofas much more likely to want to get back into the office.
The overall picture is that the only certainty is uncertainty and the best way to navigate that is to experiment, speak to your employees and build a workplace experience around them that extends beyond the corporate concrete block. It will be a mix of locations and you need to provide the glue to keep it all together. Don’t worry, your employees will guide you – but only if you listen.