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Are we going back to the office?

Many of us could never have imagined working from home just a few years ago, but now it is fast becoming a standard in a lot of industries. Dr Mark Pegg considers the future of full time office working and whether hybrid working is here to stay.

Philosophies at war?

This week Amazon announced all office staff must be in the office at least three days a week from 1 May 2023, bringing them into line with similar rulings by Disney and Starbucks. Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said: 'collaborating and inventing is easier and more effective when we're in person.' After we have pondered how many Amazon staff could work from home to do the day job anyway, this announcement is a good moment to assess whether working in the office is making a comeback in 2023.

Rush hour traffic jams seem to be back, but many parents then go home after the school run. Station car parks have wide open spaces on non-strike days, but the Elizabeth Line is standing room only in the rush hour. On Mondays and Fridays, it is 'when can you come' to get a desk, but many report company life is back to normal mid-week. 'Thursday is the new Friday' for after hours socialising. Some like Elon Musk and James Dyson want everyone back in the office 24/7 and don't see working from home (WFH) as real work, but others tell us they'll never accept an office job ever again. With such widely differing opinions, how is WFH shaping up after the revolution of Covid lockdown in March 2020?

What is the data telling us?

Research published by the London Evening Standard in 2023 suggests hybrid working is here to stay with employers adapting to working practices their staff prefer. The Standard surveyed the blue-chip FTSE 100 companies and asked how many days on average staff work in the office each week, and if that would change or stay the same this year 1 . A healthy forty-four businesses employing 100,000 office staff replied covering a wide range of sectors including retail, real estate, insurance and engineering. Almost all offer flexible and hybrid working, although many rule staff must be in the office for a set number of days. The most common is three days in the office (13 firms). Two to three days is second-most popular followed by two days (6) and a few only one to two days per week.

This suggests the new normal is two or three days per week in the office, mainly Tuesday to Thursday. Survey feedback reveals how WFH remains highly popular, few miss the daily commute, but in-person meetings are still prized with strong support for office days as vital for social connectivity: a break from Zoom calls, a perfect place to collaborate and network effectively. More are travelling to work: passenger numbers on all the different parts of London's public transport network, are rising slowly   at about 80% of pre-pandemic levels in October 2022. Transport for London sees a continued rise in walking and cycling, the latter is 40% higher than 2020.

What does it mean for the office?

What are the implications? Certainly, demand for office space is well down. National office occupancy surveys continue to show a slow upward trend, reaching 35% occupancy in 2022. Although some property developers are convinced there is a viable market for construction of more office space, the instinct of many others is to look for part office, part commercial, part residential development with more change of use and conversions of office to residential.

Many agree that in the battle for talent, the future office must be different, greener, more sustainable and set up for hybrid working. In 'The Nowhere Office', Julia Hobsbawm 2 explores how a radical rethink of the way we work means workplaces should be repurposed to become brighter and more attractive spaces, reinvented to motivate people, good for mental health and team working, a place that engenders a strong culture of sharing, communicating and learning in people who spend a lot of their time working somewhere else.

What about the workers?

Younger workers particularly tell us online works fine for them as digital natives who understand online social networks and can work flexibly, but one survey shows 81% of younger workers say they feel more isolated without time in the office. They tell me they miss the social buzz of working life and often don't have the peace and quiet or desk space at home. Older workers tell me the corporate culture is suffering   younger staff are missing out on random face to face transfer of tradecraft, that subtleties of business insight and knowhow are not being passed on as effectively.

Crystal Ball time

Time alone will tell how the seismic shift to WFH will impact on the key performance drivers for corporate success and on the 'zeitgeist' (the spirit and culture) at the heart of organisations in this new world. Will the hybrid working model generate fresh thinking and create flourishing intellectual capital for the next generation? The future of the psychological contract between employer and employee is very much in transition and the consequences for the shape of careers from now on is clearly a subject for sensitive understanding and adaptation. There is no magic formula, but those who get the right balance, one that works for their organisation and their staff, are likely to win the war for the best talent and reap the richest rewards.

Author: Dr Mark Pegg, Director, Chalfont Associates

1 Evening Standard, 10 February 2023
2 Julia Hobsbawm The Nowhere Office 2022

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