Will we go back to the office? The expert consensus is now clear – yes, we will.
We are naturally social beings, and we achieve great things working together. But perhaps more importantly, working in teams is good for our mental and physical health.
In this article Coronavirus: How the world of work may change forever - BBC Worklife, Robin Dunbar, Emeritus Professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University, explains why the office will endure:
“The last few months has seen a great deal of media hype about new ways of working – the dispersed office and working from home. Alas, it is all hype. We have forgotten that we tried it 20 years ago and very quickly gave it up… for three very good reasons.
First, the work place is a social environment and business in any form is a social phenomenon. Without face-to-face engagement, and those casual meetings round the coffee machine, the ‘flow’ that makes things work, and work fast, will be missing. Work groups quickly lose focus, and the sense of belonging – and of commitment to the organisation and its aims and objectives – is very quickly lost.
Second, we have been in the midst of a loneliness epidemic among the 20-somethings for the better part of the last two decades. It is a particular problem for young new graduates moving to an unfamiliar city on their first job. With no family or friends nearby, work is the only place they can find friends and arrange social events. “We come in to work to see our friends!” has been their response to surveys.
Third, the digital world of Zoom and Skype is no substitute for face-to-face meetings. It is easy to hide away reading your emails and newsfeed. People find the virtual environment awkward and very quickly get bored. There is a very strict limit on the size of natural conversations at four people. Anything bigger, and it becomes a lecture dominated by a handful of extraverts”.
According to the UK Government’s roadmap out of lockdown, from 17th May “Most businesses in all but the highest risk sectors will be able to reopen. In all sectors, COVID-Secure guidance will remain in place and businesses may not cater for groups bigger than the legal limits.”
What exactly is meant by ‘groups bigger than the legal limits’ is not entirely clear at time of writing, but we are assuming, this is a reference to ‘gatherings’ of 30 people maximum – which should cover most meetings!
COVID-secure guidance still applies, so employers would be wise to consider their risk-mitigation strategy and possibly a Health & Safety Policy review. An appropriate, implemented, policy will help to restore employee confidence and trust. Interion can support you throughout the entire process; more information and further links are available in this article: Your future office, our one-stop solution.
Tips for employers
Communication & Consultation
Set out clearly your expectations regarding attendance, but be as flexible as possible in the short term, allowing time for people to explore rhythms and working patterns that also work for the business. Consider setting up some staff meetings to explore the possibilities, seeking contributions from those affected.
This would also be a good opportunity to discuss office etiquette; ways in which all individuals can help and support each other through a period of adjustment (See ‘Tips for Everyone’ below)
Inclusivity & Support
After such a long period of separation, and in some cases, isolation, it’s important to recognise that mental health will be a big issue. Understandably, many workers will be nervous about returning to more conventional work patterns, while others may display more overt signs of stress. Alert line managers to be sensitive to potential issues and unexpected behaviours; encourage them to meet their direct reports individually, providing support as appropriate.
Remember it may not be over...
We all hope and pray that this pandemic is finally under control, but the emergence of global variants is a risk factor that could lead to further outbreaks and restrictions. The good news is that offices can be adapted to allow people to work together safely, as detailed in Interion’s Pandemic-resistant office ‘PRO’ concept. You don’t have to adopt every element, but this article is full of useful information about how you can begin to adapt your existing space.
Tips for everyone
We’re not all the same; we share a duty to help and support our fellow workers through a period of change, recognising that this period of adjustment also affects their loved ones.
Respect & Tolerance
- Don’t Joke. Not everyone is ready to return. Don’t make it harder by joking about ‘part-timers’
- Don’t exclude people from discussions because they’re joining by video-conference.
- Bring a mask – and wear it properly. Even when masks are not required, you should be prepared to wear one if requested to do so by a colleague – and cover your nose!
- Allow personal space. For now, avoid handshakes and try to observe the 2-meter rule wherever possible.
- Don’t come to work with a cold. No longer are we expected to push through illness at the risk of infecting co-workers.
- Don’t boast about your amazing experiences or achievements during lockdown – many will have achieved little, and others will have experienced personal loss or other personal challenges.
- Clear your desk when you go home. Keeping your space neat and tidy contributes to a general sense of order and wellbeing, facilitating a good cleaning regime.
- Keep your voice down. We tend to speak around 15% louder on video calls; let’s get used to normal conversation levels.
- Dress to impress. Just because we’ve spent a year in onesies or shorts and sandals does not make it right for the office. Other may not feel comfortable with less than ‘smart casual’.
Personal health and wellbeing
Check these suggestions with your line manager; but it’s likely that most employers will be willing to allow more flexibility in working patterns - staying healthy is a priority for you and everyone else working in the office.
- Be kind to yourself. Take breaks as you acclimatise to longer days. Consider adding a short walk or meditation.
- Travel at different times. Avoid the packed commuter trains by starting/finishing work earlier or later.
- Bring your own food and drink. You can avoid or minimise gatherings in the kitchen, where social distancing is hard to maintain.
- Bring your own anti-viral wipes. We now know that there is little risk of transmission through surface contact, but you will feel much better if you’ve cleaned your worktop and keyboard before use.
- Go home if you don’t feel safe. No-one will thank you for contracting Covid, so if a colleague feels unwell but stays in the office, you have no choice.
We’re all in this together, and together we’re stronger.