Why the Death of the Office is Greatly Exaggerated
Dan Zakai, co-founder and CEO of Mindspace, explains why the Covid-19 pandemic will serve as a catalyst for a long-overdue rebirth of brick-and-mortar offices.
The new coronavirus pandemic has been notable for the clamour from some quarters for a migration to homeworking. Declarations along the lines of "we’ll all be working from home forever"; "hybrid workplaces are the way to go"; "Zoom call will replace in-person conferencing for good"; and even, "offices are going to be petri dishes for germs and spread disease", have been all far too common.
But whereas fears about returning to the physical office are well warranted, it also turns out that many of us are equally concerned about not returning. That’s because the office is much more than the four walls and a roof where one does his or her work. The office is a social safety net; a point of connection; and a critical piece of motivation, support and productivity — all key aspects to not just doing our jobs, but doing them well.
As a provider of flexible office space for companies across the world, me and several of my colleagues at Mindspace were curious to know how our members felt about balancing remote and in-person work, about the risk and safety of sharing workplaces after so many locked down months and even about the anxieties, habits and intentions that will shape our future as workers, socializers and globally connected citizens in the months to come. So we asked.
While homeworking has become a way of life for almost half of British workers through the pandemic, compared with just 9 per cent before, there’s a significant yearning for the socializing and friendship that comes with working in an office.
That’s because homeworking, while often viewed as a respite from the rigors of commuting, office dress codes and fixed schedules, can trigger its own brand of stress. Many employees note video-call fatigue, and say they crave real human interaction. A survey by Monster, the jobs website, found that 50 per cent of respondents who are teleworking due to the pandemic are also experiencing mental burnout.
Indeed, among the key findings of Mindspace members in London, the number one thing that has been missed throughout the months of lockdown is being around colleagues—74 per cent of responders listed that as priority number one. And quality work thrives on collaboration, an issue that nearly half of responders said they were truly pining for; bouncing ideas off of one another was sorely missed by 43 per cent of those who took the survey.
And lest we all believe the stories about the City going under as office high rises sit empty, our respondents’ plans point to a much less disrupted future. Thirty-three percent plan to return to the office by the end of the summer and 53 per cent aim to return later in the year. Only 15 per cent of respondents said they don’t believe they will be back at the office, at least on some days, before the end of 2020.
That said, a traditional nine-to-five schedule, clocked in Monday through Friday, is likely not to rebound immediately, if at all. Only 5 per cent of our respondents said they would be returning to the office for a full five-day workweek; indeed, 44 per cent said their return involved a plan for two or three days a week in office, with the other days remote.
But perhaps the most telling responses came when our clients were asked what they feared most about returning to the office. It wasn’t so much the contaminated keyboards, circulated air or even the errant sneeze in a lift. It seems these health factors in our direct working can be managed with proper sanitation and distancing.
A hallmark of one of the world’s global capitals, the commute is the number one dreaded thing that looms for those who return to the office — 48 per cent of our London respondents put it at the top of their list. While 75 per cent of Mindspace members in the capital currently take public transport to the office, 30 per cent say they plan to change their transportation method when they return.
No one knows exactly how long the pandemic will last or how our work environments will be permanently altered by its seismic shift. But we do know what matters most right now in the hearts of the workers who are struggling with how and when to return to their offices. They want to be safe, they want to be secure, and they want to continue to contribute to the socialization and idea exchange that enriches their professional lives and happens best in a shared space.
Carl Benedikt Frey, of Oxford University’s Future of Work programme, points to the natural social exchanges that physical office spaces create, and says that such interactions are key to maintaining productivity, creativity and positivity at work. He says: "There is a reason why there are different clusters in cities (financial ones, artistic ones and even technological ones).
"These places benefit from the movement of staff between companies and the inspiration that comes from randomly talking to people within physical clusters."
So how can office landlords and employers build confidence in their employees to ensure a safe and enjoyable return to the office? We’ve learned a lot from welcoming back members to our offices in countries where the virus’s impact was not as intense. Here’s what we recommend, based on those experiences:
1 Use clear communication to share the steps you’ve taken. You’ll be making significant improvements to your health and safety measures in your building, so make sure your employees are well aware of all the new guidelines and procedures in place. And if you can position yourself as a point of expertise by offering advice on best practices from cleaning to signage to rearrange furniture to maximize social distancing, even better. Clear communication goes miles when it comes to instilling confidence.
2 Address the concerns that are at the forefront of Londoners’ minds: the safety of their commute. Can you partner with an eBike or escooter provider? Can you stagger working hours so employees can travel in on trains that are less crowded? Consider flexibility, creativity and empathy to help overcome this significant hurdle.
3 Remember that the world your employees are returning to is not the world that they left. Coronavirus has changed everything, and flexibility is key. After months working at home, employees’ expectations and requirements will have shifted. Employers’ needs will have changed as well. So as we ease back into working together in physical spaces, remember to keep an open mind and remain open to compromise. This is the best way to ensure a smooth and healthy transition for everyone, one that will yield a more fruitful and fulfilling business relationship in the years to come.