Returning to Work: Considerations for Businesses

woman wearing a mask at a desk with a laptop open

There is much talk of the necessary safety measures that must be put in place to enable a COVID secure workplace and successful return to the office post lockdown. These include the obvious 2- meter social distancing between colleagues and work desks in the office, as well as the need for frequent hand washing and hand sanitizing. There should also be signage for employees, displaying a one-way system with arrows around the office for direction, and other signs to remind colleagues to be diligent with social distancing and hygiene practices.

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It is important to consider workspace management systems (such as Cloudbooking) to efficiently book desks and meeting rooms and take advantage of our COVID solutions with track and trace, health questionnaires, and easy-to-use QR technology. However, these considerations are well documented by the business world and have been widely implemented by organizations as a top priority in their return-to-work strategies. As we emerge from COVID restrictions and get ready to open the office, businesses should also consider other critical factors that will affect their team’s wellbeing and ability to be productive.

1. Role of The Workplace

The COVID pandemic has accelerated the rise of the digital economy, enabling employees to work from home. However, remote working has its challenges with regard to culture, collaboration and creating a sense of belonging. It’s important for organizations to carefully consider the future role of their workplace for their employees. The office has always been a physical space for employees to access available resources and technology, and to provide a space for employees to separate work from personal matters. It’s also an environment that fosters valuable exchanges and enables employees to engage in social interaction with colleagues.

Workplace culture is a significant part of the office environment and employee experience. It is a concept based on shared values and beliefs that are shaped by leadership and strategic direction from management. A positive work culture improves employee well-being, team collaboration and productivity in the office. So, with more people working from home, will organizations now make the physical office a centre for positive work culture rather than just work? And will office space need to be redesigned for this purpose? Take Google, for example, their office designs are unconventional and a stark contrast to the traditional office cubicle environment. David Radcliffe, vice president of Google’s Real Estate & Workplace Services, believes that the design of the physical workplace should promote ‘casual collisions’ between employees that stimulate creativity, engagement and ultimately inspire ideas. Google campus and offices offer everything an employee would ever need at work with an array of top amenities featuring nap pods, games rooms, restaurants, micro kitchens, spas, gyms and much more. According to Comparably, the company has won 11 awards in 2020 and has been awarded the title of Best Company Culture every year since 2017. The work culture at Google is so good that news articles have even reported employees living there! It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to live at work, it simply isn’t heard of, but the Google office environment truly offers employees everything they could need to survive and thrive.

2. Equal Opportunities

It’s important to consider whether there will be equal opportunities for remote workers and office workers in terms of progression and promotion in the future workplace. Separate working environments could potentially create an ‘us versus them’ culture between those working mostly from home compared to an office. Additionally, employers have more visibility and workplace surveillance over their staff at the office when it comes to work performance. They have the opportunity to engage in conversation with their staff in passing, at lunch or outside of work.

Although remote workers might be working efficiently and are being productive from home, it’s harder for employers to ‘see’ performance and commitment with a lack of face-to-face contact. There is also little opportunity for those conversational moments that happen on a day-to-day basis in the office which could lead to building strong relationships and creating new career opportunities.

To quell these fears felt by employers, will businesses now look to digital collaboration tools to create more connected teams? It could be beneficial to implement formal structures that promote clear communication and transparency between the employer and employee. For example, daily check-in calls, team stand-ups and regular 1-2-1 meetings could be scheduled as well as informal virtual coffee breaks. We should also consider emotional support, making sure that our people’s anxieties and worries are listened to and acknowledged. Clear communication guidelines should also be laid out by managers to provide expectations on the timing, frequency and method of communication, in particular, the core hours for when team members need to be available online should be established.

3. Homelife Pressures

There will always be everyday pressures facing employees working from home, contributing to higher anxiety and stress levels. The COVID pandemic has intensified these challenges for remote working parents with children, as schools were closed during lockdown. An article by The Guardian reported that mothers were spending up to 5 hours a day teaching, with fathers spending up to 2 hours a day. Some mothers even put their careers on hold to focus on supporting their children’s educational needs. The running of household activities such as cooking, cleaning and doing the laundry can also create pressure. A study by NatCen showed that women are predominantly spending more time on household activities compared to men, even with both parents working full-time. These domestic activities are necessary for day-to-day living, but when childcare duties and maintaining a career are thrown into the mix, it can be difficult to juggle, especially for women, leading to a stressful household environment. It is, therefore, necessary for employers to provide a supportive framework for employees and implement flexible working environments which are considerate of employee’s personal needs and well-being.

There are also emotional pressures that can be felt whilst working from home. For example, a lack of social interaction and disconnection with colleagues in the office could cause one to feel isolated and lonely. Other pressures include overworking and feeling as though you need to stay online to demonstrate you are working, with the boundary between home and work being blurred. These psychological pressures can be reduced by adjusting your daily work routine from home. The first step is to organize your day to cover the hours you will be working. Make sure to schedule frequent breaks throughout the day so you can recharge and prevent yourself from burning out. A good option would be to organize virtual coffee breaks with your colleagues to feel more connected and engage in social interaction. Another idea would be to get outside for a walk or run and connect with nature to benefit both your physical and psychological health.

4. Water Cooler Moments

There are certain moments you miss out on when you work from home such as water-cooler moments, a serendipitous interaction that provides subject matter for conversations between colleagues in the office. These moments of interaction can happen anywhere in the office such as the elevator, the office corridor and yes, even grabbing a drink of water from the water cooler. The concept of casual workplace conversation can be beneficial for employees for a variety of reasons. Firstly, employees can take a short physical and mental break which is good for productivity. They can move around and stretch their legs after being sat down at their desk for a long period of time and de-stress from their work. These water cooler moments promote a sense of community and engagement as well as positive work culture. Employees also have the chance of engaging in conversation with colleagues from different departments who they may not get a chance to speak to normally. A research study by Totaljobs found that 52% of UK workers rely on the workplace for most of their social interactions. The same study also showed that 74% of UK workers have felt lonely whilst working remotely during lockdown and realize the value in these brief social exchanges. Replicating chance encounters online is difficult and meetings need to be organized in advance, so the lack of social interaction and conversational exchange should be considered when contemplating return to office solutions.

5. Consider Other Spaces

With a shift to flexibility in work structures, coworking spaces and what’s known as a ‘third space’, has gained traction. A third space is a term coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg. It describes the third of three spaces where one can perform work and engage in social interaction. Traditionally, these included areas such as cafes, pubs and restaurants, but now the concept of a third space is expanding to any area with an available WiFi internet connection. These third spaces can be used for independent working, informal meetings as well as collaboration and socializing.

An increasing number of organizations are turning to coworking office spaces to fulfill their business needs and adopt a flexible workspace. Coworking is an arrangement that allows office workers from different companies as well as freelancers to share office space. There are lots of renting options for coworking spaces which include renting open desks, dedicated desks as well as private offices. This flexible working environment allows small businesses or start-ups to scale up and down as they evolve whilst managing risk. Unlike serviced offices which have a corporate office feel, coworking office areas are designed for collaboration and engagement that inspires a community culture. They feature an open plan layout with modern amenities such as pool tables, bars and kitchens that create a casual and friendly ambiance.

Organizations must consider how they want their teams to utilize these spaces, potentially with workspace management software to let them book approved spaces. They should also consider processes that can be put in place to ensure continued collaboration while maintaining security and privacy.

6. Reducing Office Space

Office space is one of the largest investments made by an organization, but it can also be one of the most difficult due to long-term commitments. With more people working from home, there will be fewer people in the office at one given time. Organizations need to consider their office environment and make decisions about reducing and optimizing office space. The cost of office real estate is exceptionally high, with London being the highest in Europe. The West End in London has an average rent per square foot of £112. However, the COVID pandemic has caused a significant decrease in office lease activity, with data from Statista showing that London City, the largest office market in the U.K, fell by 76 percent in the fourth quarter of 2019 and 2020.

With more people working from home and adopting a flexible hybrid working style, could more office spaces be rented out? The concept of a serviced office is a flexible and affordable office space solution. It can be cost-effective as there are more flexible lease arrangements with usually low deposit amounts with a variety of business services included in the lease. Traditionally, office space would be rented out by square-foot measurements. Now, however, it’s becoming more popular to rent on a per workstation basis.

It is also important for businesses to consider investing in workspace management systems such as Cloudbooking to be able to gain thorough insight and analysis into their office space utilization to make informed decisions about reducing their office space. The Cloudbooking workspace management software helps employees to reserve desks and meeting rooms using QR technology, occupancy sensors and integration services. The system also provides real-time analytics on desk usage, working hours saved and occupancy levels. This way, organizations can develop a deeper understanding of their office space and the space requirements needed to support their workers, as well as making it easier to optimize usage and minimize vacancies.

Not only will lowering office space help to reduce real estate costs and optimize office space, but it will also contribute to reducing carbon footprint at work which is very important, for example, for government organisations. The operation and maintenance of buildings is responsible for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.K, making it important for businesses to reduce energy demand and consumption. This coincides with the U.K’s legally binding target to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Lighting, for instance, makes up most of an office’s energy usage, followed closely by heating and air conditioning systems and electronic office equipment. Businesses should aim to reduce office space to minimize energy output as well as taking steps to implement energy-saving schemes, maximizing the use of renewables and consider implementing sustainable office design features.

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