Flexible working and the future of the office

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COVID - the future of the office

Flexible working and the future of the office

Flexible working offers up a plethora of possible solutions, all with numerous complexities and ramifications to consider. What does this mean for the future of office working?

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused many of us to pause and reflect on our lives and careers. Many office workers, now working remotely, have benefited from an improved work-life balance, more time with family and reduced commuting cost, giving them more freedom and flexibility than ever before. Meanwhile, creativity and collaboration has arguably suffered, and over-working, loneliness and isolation have been an issue for many.

We will shortly be moving away from permanent home working as offices reopen, but there is no doubt the world has changed. Flexible working is now an expectation, likely to become a key element in firms’ ability to attract and retain talent. However, flexible working offers up a plethora of possible solutions, all with numerous complexities and ramifications to consider. What does this mean for the future of office working?

Home or office?

A recent survey by Finder (finder.co.uk) found that 26% of employees currently working from home plan to continue doing so after lockdown restrictions have eased and offices are fully reopened. Several other surveys point to a majority of workers being willing to take a pay cut by up to 20% in order to continue to work from home (citrix.com), though in reality, savings on house prices, commuting and office lunches would make up the difference. It is predicted that on average, remote workers are saving between £40-50 per week on commuting and buying lunch and coffees alone.

A fully remote solution makes geography irrelevant, allowing staff to move to places with lower living costs. From an employer’s perspective, fully remote roles open up a global talent pool, and quite possibly potential savings too. However, it is arguably hybrid solutions that come with the greatest challenges and benefits.

Flexible working – what does that look like exactly?

Our own research, focused on financial services, found that 92% of respondents wanted flexibility, with an even spread of respondents preferring mostly office-based, mostly home-based, or an equal mix of both. Crucially, only 8% wanted to spend all their time in either location, emphasising the challenge facing firms: no solution will suit everyone, but truly flexible solutions have the potential to descend into chaos. Some structure will be needed in order to ensure team cohesion. After all, if the point of office work is collaboration and human contact, then staff would need to be in the office at the same time to achieve this.

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Apple recently announced their flexible working policy, allowing staff to work from home Wednesdays and Fridays. Pre-pandemic, this would have been seen as a generous policy, and likely embraced by staff, but that is not the case now; staff responded with an internal letter demanding more flexibility and time at home. The pandemic has changed expectations, and whilst Apple’s approach was an attempt at offering home working within a rigid structure, it highlights the challenge ahead.

In person work environments and home working both come with great advantages. The challenge lies in creating models that plays to the strength of both. Quite likely, the best approach is to treat this as an evolution, rather than attempting to introduce ready-made, fixed plans. It will take time, and trial and error, to arrive at a solution that brings together productivity, creativity, team cohesion and staff wellbeing in the best possible way.

Individual vs team productivity

The study by Finder showed that 65% of British workers said they feel more productive when working from home and 83% of employees felt that they don’t need an office to be productive. HR and management teams have been less positive, perhaps highlighting the difference between individual productivity and team productivity. Are companies like football teams, success dependent not so much on purchasing star players, but on making them play well together as a team? If so, the focus has potentially been slightly off.

The productivity gains are mostly ascribed to the lack of distractions and interruptions remote working offers, as well as wellbeing around not commuting and increased family time. However, learning and development, and wider contribution to the team dynamic, are arguably the losers here.

Whilst firms quickly learnt how to create remote training and induction programs for new starters – many of whom have yet to meet their new colleagues – ultimately a great deal of learning and development comes by osmosis, from shadowing and working alongside other people. This is especially relevant for younger professionals and graduates (who are often also working from cramped bedrooms and shared living spaces). They don’t have the benefit of having established relationships with colleagues, or the opportunity to show what they are capable of, putting them at a disadvantage.

There is also a question of how creativity and development of new ideas will be affected long term.

Lasting change?

Will the remote working momentum and feeling last? The majority of people have been working from home during a national lockdown, where there was no other option. However, with offices reopening, and teams moving from remote work to hybrid solutions, how many of the changes will stick?

Whilst flexible working is being pushed hard at the moment, some thinktanks are predicting a return to full time office work. They are expecting the return of office interactions to benefit those who go in, eventually bringing all staff back. Psychologists have also warned that the novelty of home working will wear off, and that human interaction is essential to wellbeing.

However, there IS certainly a new expectation among candidates that firms offer flexible working, and as the Apple example shows, the balance of power has shifted from corporations to employees. There is a talent and skills shortage brewing, and the pandemic has caused an unprecedented number of workers to revaluate their lives and careers, and look to move jobs. Firms cannot afford to simply return to the old ways if they wish to retain and attract talent.

The technological revolution is also here to stay. Technology and the pandemic have between them ensured that geographically separated teams have been brought closer together, improving team cohesion. Whilst we’ve spent less time with the person sitting opposite us, we’ve gotten to know colleagues on the other side of country, and the world, better. Firms have also saved money on travel, and many meetings are sure to stay online.

The extreme working model the pandemic forced on us won’t last much longer, but it has hastened a great number of changes, and the world we are moving into won’t look the same as the one we left. Firms who can see the opportunities and find innovative ways to embrace the changes will be the winners.

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