By Eamon Fox, partner and head of office agency at the Leeds office of global property consultancy Knight Frank:
A survey by the Institute of Employment Studies (IES) has revealed that people working from home are drinking more alcohol, eating less healthy food and having problems sleeping. More than half of those polled revealed a significant increase in new aches and pains in the neck, shoulder and back compared with their normal condition.
Diet and exercise are on the wane, with lack of sleep being based on increased worry. Half of those polled said they were working longer hours and were not happy with their life-work balance. One in three said they felt isolated. In a nutshell, working from home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Many are pining for office life again.
So, like the death of Mark Twain, the demise of the office has been greatly exaggerated. That will come a no surprise to those who have been struggling with working from home since Covid-19 first struck.
In an era of Zoom, video calling, team messaging and online document sharing, it was widely thought that co-workers didn’t need to be in the same country, let alone county. No more overheads, no more commutes.
But wait a minute. Home working has big drawbacks: No team building, no inspirational creative get-togethers, no freedom, albeit temporary, from the myriad pressures of home life. It is both intriguing and significant that the trend from those firms best able to run virtual offices in the United States has been to invest in exemplary state-of-the-art offices for their employees. This trend is now spreading to the UK.
It is tremendous that we are now prioritising the creation of wonderful offices, inspiring creativity, collaboration and hard work, which – crucially – are key to attracting and retaining talent. Even the most passionate advocates of working from home can’t pretend to be consistently inspired in isolation.
Managing remote teams is do-able, but company culture dwindles when technology consistently replaces face-to-face interaction. We are inherently social and we thrive on feeling connected to those we have relationships with, colleagues and clients alike.
Working from home does not allow for those “water-cooler” moments. The shared office ensures we don’t miss out on micro-interactions with people. Tone of voice, facial expressions and importantly, context, can get lost in translation when working from home.
The boundaries between work and personal life are much harder to maintain when work ends in the same place personal life begins. Your remote workers are already juggling more, whether it’s looking after kids or figuring out how to co-work with their spouses – and in the younger generations – spending a lot more time with flatmates they probably met on SpareRoom.
Five-day home working is not for everyone and actually it’s not for most – the need to collaborate and socialise are too strong a pull. However the five-day office day work, sitting at a desk, being ‘present’ but not productive, is also not the answer. It is about agile working. The office is a vessel, a tool to enable collaboration – but it sits as a tool alongside digital tools that can be very effective too. It is about picking the right tool for the right job and the right individual.
There needs to be more of a focus on output and not just time. Managers will need to adjust to managing their agile workforce through the office and through remote working effectively. One doesn’t have to see someone face-to-face to see that they are working – one sees that through output and results. This current crisis will reveal how we can become more effective as well as more resilient. It will challenge behaviour.
What is clear is that the average office is neither a compelling place to work nor that productive. This is much more than adding some bean bags, slides or beer taps, it is about creating the right type of environment that fosters effective working – great offices and great environments will rise to the fore.
There are already a few trailblazers of the 21st century office in Leeds and more to come, with Grade A office space in the city now at a premium. Once the lockdown eases, don’t be surprised to see the myth of the joy of working from home well and truly shattered.