With Covid-19 infection rates remaining extremely high, a return to the office seems a long way off, but when it does eventually happen it’s likely to look a whole lot different to how it was before.
There are challenges facing both employers and employees around this in terms of balancing efficiency and productivity goals with the attraction and retention of staff.
As 2022 beckons, the work landscape has already seen huge changes – and more are coming down the tracks.
Dave Egan, group head of recruitment at PM Group, says there have been so many stop-starts in the last 20 months that it’s difficult to predict how things might pan out, but we are unlikely to see an “all back in” date.
“We are looking at what’s best for the staff and the company and you’d like to have a hybrid model.”
Having surveyed staff they found that most would like two to three days per week in the office. However many are hoping to work Tuesday to Thursday, with Mondays and Fridays off.
“We are also moving from that traditional idea of everyone having their own desk to a more flexible model. Some may have a designated desk but most will share.”
One of the most difficult aspects of work from home for many was the loss of that casual interaction that happens in an office that can often spark ideas or get the creative juices flowing.
“We have gone from seeing people face to face or having those conversations that very often sparks thoughts to zoom calls with cameras where you may not pick up on body language or nuance,” Egan says.
When talking to organisations they work with, Fania Stoney, chief executive at Healthy Place to Work, says two strategic priorities for 2022 appear again and again: resilient operations and understanding the shifting talent pool.
“When we look at our data and what people are saying about their experience of work, two clear priorities emerge: flexibility and connection. The marrying of these priorities will be critical in how organisations plan their approach to work next year – both in where and how people work.”
Going back to work in the office, as it was in early 2020, is not going to happen and it isn’t what people want, she says.
“In fact we are hearing about organisations talking about ‘going forward to work’ as opposed to ‘back to the office’ as it better captures the lived experience. What are some things that we are seeing organisations do? They are actively listening so they are clear on the expectations people have and how their plans can best support that. They are helping people get clear on what individual work can be done from anywhere, creating space for collaborative work that needs people to come together, and clearly articulating how both types fit into the overall direction of the organisation,” she says.
She gives a simple example of how one organisation is thinking about flexibility and connection.
“They empowered their leaders to find out what was going to work best for their teams, giving them the freedom to find the best fit for their people. When things begin to open up next year these teams already know how often they want to come together, and have made sure that their approach allows for the opportunity to connect in person.
“There is nothing more de-energising than making the trip to the office to find out that none of the people you were hoping to see are also in that day,” she says.
Their own team’s experience is that they are currently “office-less”. “We are 100 per cent remote, with no immediate plans to change that. Given our digital-first approach we are intentional about creating safe opportunities for us to come together in person, and will continue to do so as fostering that in-person, human connection is essential for us to support a healthy culture and drive the business forward.”
So what are some things to consider as this conversation evolves into 2022?
“People want their work to be visible and their leaders to choose their volume wisely. Inevitably we will have scenarios with some people remote, others hybrid, and others in office. Regardless of where people are, it is critical that they feel visible, especially with diminished physical proximity.
“Equally important is how leaders choose their digital volume. A key skill for any leader in 2022 will be the ability to deliver a message with care and clarity, and make the complicated simple,” Stoney says.
The return to the office will be slow, says Jonathan Legge, chief executive and co-founder of &Open, but more importantly it will never be like it was before.
“Work has become and will remain far more flexible; hours, days, locations all can and should flex. Work will become more attuned to daily life in a very positive and human way. Time in the office will remain essential, but only because the office will become a hub to gather in, be that for critical meetings, planning workshops or a weekly lunch. The office will be about meeting in person, in many ways it will become more social.”
Legge disagrees that there are challenges involved in balancing efficiency and productivity goals with the attraction and retention of staff. “People still need to get the job done. What we are doing at &Open, however, is allowing them flexibility regarding when and where they get it done.”
In terms of what staff’s wants and needs are coming out of the pandemic, he says: “If you are asking people to come into an office it needs to be a clean, healthy and welcoming environment. For us it is not so much about a canteen or gym but having lunch cooked for everyone once a week – a time to really gather properly.
“And we have no plans for a gym but are exploring how we can help with childcare and mental health and the stresses of modern life that the pandemic has so boldly exposed.”