Do people really want to return to the office on 19 July?
Boris Johnson has at last set out the government's plans to lift the remaining Covid restrictions in England. From the 19th July, most legal restrictions and guidance in England will come to an end, including the current advice to work from home.
Business leaders such as Sir Alan Sugar and Pimlico Plumbers founder Charlie Mullins have publicly called for staff to get back to the office — but do workers actually want to go?
A recent survey conducted by consultancy Future Strategy Club suggests no: 57% of respondents said they didn't want to go back to their previous 9 to 5.
Remote work has been a largely positive experience for many people. People have avoided commuting and enjoyed extra time at home. Some have moved homes to enjoy more space.
Many people are reluctant to give up these benefits. According to a survey of conducted by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), 89% of office workers want a flexible approach to returning to the office where they can work remotely for as many days as they want.
Despite some predicting the permanent decline of offices, not everyone is happier working at home. Some people are missing the social aspect of the office. Of those by the IPA, 31% said they wanted to return to the office full-time, citing feeling lonely, missing colleagues and finding it hard to collaborate remotely.
“Office workers are missing the proximity and connection,” says Joanna Blazinska, a career coach and strategist. “There are benefits such as fun and socialising — for example, coffees, lunches, drinks after work or office banter. People bond more easily.
“They build relationships on a professional and personal level, which in turn helps with the effectiveness of their actions at work. This is not something one can recreate easily via Zoom or MS Teams.”
The social benefits of in-office work shouldn’t be underestimated. In a day at the office, we would usually interact with about 17 people, according to . Working from home, we’re lucky if we speak to half that number – and usually it’s only virtually. It’s common to miss the buzz of an office environment, as well as the spontaneous chit-chat and passing conversations with colleagues.
These exchanges aren’t just about socialising, either. Being around other people can be a productive, engaging environment where ideas, thoughts and information are traded.
“We all need connection to build relationships but also to get feedback on how we perform, understand the preferences of the leader and the team and create a sense of belonging,” says Blazinska.
“It is easier to create a relationship with someone when you see them frequently, as you’ll naturally bump into them, or grab a coffee together, or simply chit chat while the kettle is on and you’re making a cuppa. You can read the power dynamics, body language of people and speed up things just by having a possibility to simply turn around to them and ask a question.”
However, as multiple surveys have suggested, only a small fraction of people want to return to the office full-time, Blazinska points out.
“I think they miss more if the company or team culture was already a positive one, or if it improved over time during the pandemic,” she says. “People might not miss the social aspect of the office as much if the culture was not great, or they’ve seen no interest from the leadership around their wellbeing during the pandemic.”
With more workers wanting the option to work flexibly, forcing everyone to return to the office clearly isn’t the answer. So what can employers do to ensure all workers are happy and engaged?
“First of all, employers need to listen to their teams,” Blazinska says. “Do they miss the office? What interactions do they miss? Then think how to replicate these interactions.
“If quality bonding is missing, online activities could work or periodical meet-ups in person in the office. These meet-ups can also be based more on quality time, deeper conversations, a longer lunch, so more presence and more mindfulness in the interactions. If more random check-ins are needed, as the team just needs to have a relaxing moment together, that could be a coffee.”
That being said, employers need to avoid methods that risk burning teams out.
“At this point, there’s no need to control or try and force online interactions. They need to respect everyone’s flexibility and autonomy, and their working hours,” says Blazinska.
Hybrid working — where people come to the office part-time or as many days as they would like — is another solution. But employers need to be clear on the model and put in place the right tools so employees can stay on top of collaboration and communication, even when working from home. Workspaces can be used as a base for people to come together for meetings or social events, as well as those who prefer in-office working.
“Leaders need to over-communicate so the whole team, those working from home and from the office, feel included and like they have access to the same information, context and detail,” says Blazinska.
“They need to build deeper relationships with their team members and encourage them to build 1:1 relationships with their peers from the team and outside of it. Leaders need to create a culture where no one is left behind.”
Watch: Boris Johnson's five point plan for living with COVID