Is it really the end of the office?


Employees’ desire to continue working from home has prompted many firms to consider whether the office is truly necessary. But, as Ashleigh Webber reports, rumours about the death of the office seem exaggerated

Since March, millions of workers in the UK have been working from their kitchen tables, spare bedrooms or sofas for some, if not all, of the time.

What started off as a necessary step to contain the coronavirus has now prompted organisations – from banking giants to start-ups – to consider whether the “world’s biggest working from home experiment” should be a permanent feature of our working lives.

Numerous surveys have identified an appetite for increased flexibility over working locations and hours post-pandemic. A survey of more than 2,000 office workers commissioned by behavioural science consultancy Mind Gym found that six in 10 wanted to remain working from home in some capacity on a permanent basis, rising to three-quarters in London.

Likewise, CIPD research found employers expect the proportion of their people working from home in the long term to increase to 37% from 18% pre-Covid-19.

Indeed in its commercial property survey for Q2 2020, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors found that 93% of respondents envisage businesses scaling back their office footprint over the next two years.

Many organisations in a variety of sectors are now considering whether an office is necessary – and this is unsurprising given the significant savings on overheads some firms could make.

For example, City employers often pay an average of 20% of salary in real estate space for each employee, according to Brian Kropp, chief of research at consultancy Gartner HR, who believes there will be a “significant increase in the number of companies that make the decision to shut down or dramatically shrink their office space” to save costs.

Large employers in finance and technology are proposing to take advantage of employees’ openness to remote working and reduce their office footprint permanently. Barclays and Fujitsu have signalled that they will be closing some of their office space, while NatWest Group – formerly RBS Group – has told almost 50,000 UK-based staff that they will continue working from home until at least 2021.

Law firm Slater & Gordon is permanently closing its London base and reviewing the rest of its office estate as it does not want staff “tethered to desks in offices”.  Chief executive David Whitmore said in May “We are a technology driven business and we always knew that having most of our staff working remotely was in our future.”

But as Claire Williams, director of people and services at HR software firm CIPHR, explains, a blended model of home working and office working is likely to suit for most organisations’ needs.

“I think the long-term shift we’ll see is to remote working as the default with some office-based working, rather than the other way around,” she says. “It used to be that offering flexible or remote working made a job vacancy stand out and was a real boon for your employer brand; however, as this becomes more standard, we might actually see jobs advertised as ‘office based’ aimed at attracting those candidates who don’t want to work remotely.”

Williams thinks offices will become more ‘sterile’ – not only because of the hygiene measures required to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but also because there will be fewer personal items left on people’s desks. They will also likely resemble co-working spaces and conference centres as their purpose shifts towards collaboration and socialising.

‘Hubs and clubs’ model

A recent report from property firm JLL suggests around 30% of all office space will be consumed flexibly by 2030, as the need for a fixed office space declines.

“As organisations look to adapt to the ‘next normal’ where de-densification of main office space will need to occur, we anticipate a move towards a ‘hubs and clubs’ model that provides office locations closer to where people live. These distributed locations, or ‘clubs’, are likely to lean heavily on flexible space arrangements,” says Ben Munn, global flexible space lead for JLL.

We might actually see jobs advertised as ‘office based’ aimed at attracting those candidates who don’t want to work remotely,” – Claire Williams, CIPHR

The financial challenges the pandemic has brought has prompted some firms to consider renting out or relinquishing some of their office space in order to save costs.

PromoVeritas, a company that runs competitions and promotions for big brands, has decided to rent out a third of its North London office space which it now considers surplus as staff will be working in the office for three days a week instead of five.

Chief executive Jeremy Stern says: “We have two floors, one of 3500 sq ft and one of 2000 sq ft; the latter we only leased 18 months ago in anticipation of corporate growth and although it was fitted out for 20 plus people, it has only ever had 10 people in it.

“Although I am still a strong believer in getting face-to-face with our staff or our clients there are three realities that I have had to come to terms with: that with just a few tweaks to our systems we can work remotely with reasonable efficiency; that expecting significant growth is probably unrealistic [in the current climate]; and having a half empty office floor is not a good use of money and that with some simple juggling we can all fit onto one floor.”

Some organisations say employees’ openness to continued remote working has allowed them to think about using their workspaces to encourage collaboration and relationship-building, while allowing employees to carry out the bulk of their tasks from home.

Katharine Hallam, head of talent management at law firm Baker McKenzie, says: “We see working collaboratively within an office as part of the future of working in our firm. Agile working is something that we really want to take forward and ensure that people can still carry out their roles to the best of their ability; for some that might be two days in the office and three days from home, for others it might be one day per week from home and four in the office.”

Hallam says law firms’ work involves about building relationships with clients and colleagues, “and there are times where that relationship is best served with that personal interaction and human contact”.

Reimagining the office

Perhaps bucking the trend towards increased home working is internal fit-out firm Portview, which is investing £2.5 million in a reimagined head office which will house employee perks such as a gym, a nurse’s office for health consultations and terraces and balconies with plants to “connect employees with the natural environment”, says its managing director Simon Campbell.

“This not only signifies the dawn of a new era for us, but also gives our team something to look forward to during a time of uncertainty and displacement.

“Offices have a much greater purpose than offering employees a desk and computer screen to work from. It’s the physical catalyst that reminds us that we’re not alone in this experience, for we’re surrounded by the same people, working towards the same goals, at the same time, in the same place,” he says.

A similar vision is shared by digital and SEO firm The Evergreen Agency, which expects to go ahead with an office extension and refurbishments.

Although the company supports flexible and home working, managing director Aaron Rudman-Hawkins thinks that the best results in creative industries are achieved where staff can collaborate in person.

Offices have a much greater purpose than offering employees a desk and computer screen to work from. It’s the physical catalyst that reminds us that we’re not alone in this experience,” – Simon Campbell, Portview

He says: “Having an office and base gives us the team and our clients a place to come together, share ideas and get the help they need. While you can do many of these things online and remote, I personally feel you lose something special when it is not in person.

“[During the crisis] it would be easy to sit still and press pause, or I’ve seen many similar creative or digital businesses cut overheads and reduce office space already, which forces employees to adopt remote working. The reality for us is that our business is rapidly growing and my team has been very keen and transparent in wanting to get back into the office.”

Rudman-Hawkins says organisations should accept that individuals have their own preferred working style, so they should be given the option to work in ways they see fit.

The proportion of home working and office working could change depending on the task and the stage employees are at in their careers, says Paul Robinson, director of HR at law firm Trowers & Hamlins. Junior employees, for example, may feel more comfortable working around more experienced colleagues.

He says: “I have learned from more senior colleagues previously: observing them, listening to them, socialising with them.

“Whilst flexible, agile working has a place and is essential in the modern-day law firm, fledgling careers could suffer. So much learning is done informally and relationships similarly developed, both within and across teams.”

CIPHR’s Williams agrees knowledge sharing and collaboration does not come naturally in a remote working environment, “One of the things we’re trying to figure out at CIPHR is how those spontaneous ‘water cooler’ chats – which can be really important for knowledge sharing or creativity – can be take place in a virtual environment. There are options for doing so, but I don’t think they’ll replace the value and spontaneity of face-to-face conversations entirely.”

While many organisations are yet to firm up plans for what their primary work setting will be, Gartner’s Kropp says they need to think carefully before making drastic decisions about their office space.

“What companies should be asking is not if we should have a corporate office, but rather: what do we want the purpose of our corporate offices to be?  Should it be the place to engage our employees, our customers or our communities?  Should it be the place where we collaborate and innovate? Or maybe something else?”

If the lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that people value human interaction and connection with others. Perhaps the future of the office lies here, balanced with home working when tasks and life circumstances require it.

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