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The great return to the office

How can employers entice the workforce back to the office post-pandemic?

Should the office be more like the home?

During the covid pandemic, the world’s office workers got used to working from home. They created workspace in their homes or worked more casually from the sofa or the kitchen table. Alongside this they got used to being able to answer the door to online shopping deliveries, look after their children while working and take breaks in the comfort of their own home or garden. They could wear what they wanted from the waist down, the sales of stretchy lounge pants have soared, and wear slippers instead of shoes. Equally, many gave up the daily grind of commuting, travelling by public transport and sitting in traffic to get to work each day.

Many employers would now like their staff to return to the office environment, either full time, part-time or flexibly. Understandably, some workers are reluctant to do so as the benefits of working full-time from home are many.

So, what should employers do to entice their workforce out of their lounge pants, don business attire once more and come back to the office?

Simply demanding their return may backfire as the great resignation has shown that the workers of today are prepared to quit if their working conditions no longer suit them.

But there is an alternative. Make the office as attractive as the home.

There are many ways to do this and they are not just aesthetic. Granted, a bland, beige office is not likely to compete with most people’s choice of home décor but the ability of the office to provide things that the home simply cannot is undoubtedly going to encourage even the most reluctant worker to venture into the office.

The most obvious of these is the ability to meet colleagues, clients and customers face to face. If face to face interactions become the most important function of the office, rather than desk-based tasks, you can imagine how the office begins to look very different. Spaces and furniture solutions that respond to the many different ways colleagues need to interact face to face have grown in popularity even pre-pandemic and can take many forms. The combination of the solutions and strategies required to get people talking start to create a vibrant work environment.

People need spaces to talk one on one, in small, focussed groups, in larger groups for more structured interactions and touch down space to perform tasks on the go.

The social benefits of being in the office are also an attractive prospect for workers, with the ability to catch up with work friends, celebrate team wins, mark milestones such as promotions and big birthdays and host events in the social calendar such as charity fundraisers and office get-togethers. Simply having space to eat together either at lunch or for organised events with catering such as product launches can be a massive benefit to team building and staff morale and cross fertilisation of ideas can grow out of the interactions these activities afford.

Use of technology can also help make sure that the right people are in the office at the right time. There’s nothing worse than trekking into the office only to find that the rest of your team is working from home. Smart solutions for booking hot desks, informal meeting areas and more formal meeting rooms are available and can sync with team calendars so workers can see who else will be there and teams can agree when and where to meet. Equally, ensuring that a group that has decided to meet in person can also dial in other members of the team who are elsewhere on Zoom or Teams means that no one gets left out of decision making or idea sharing. This can be done by providing the IT infrastructure to all meeting and work areas no matter how relaxed and informal so that even the kitchen breakfast bar can host a team meeting or a one to one catch-up.

Offering on-site childcare can be a massive benefit to staff with children. Additionally, providing other wellbeing related benefits such as a yoga room or fitness suite, facilities for active lifestyles such as secure cycle storage and high-quality showers and lockers all add to the enticing package that employers can offer. Bringing in a service such as a beauty therapist or hairdresser can also make life easier for people especially if the office is not located in the centre of a town.

Finally, variety is the spice of life. Some people simply do not want to sit behind a desk and would rather stand, some prefer the sofa or a high table, some want to sit at the same desk every time where others prefer to change it up. Some may even want a small room to themselves. If all or any of these solutions can be accommodated, then surely the office is here to stay.

Ross Ellis Stewart is an architect and award-winning workplace designer.

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