Switching On: What is the Future of the Office?

Author: William Seabrook
Date: 26.03.2021
In the latest Partisan 'Switching On' webinar, our invited panel looked at what happens next to the office, and whether lockdown will change office culture permanently.
Chris Cheap
Managing Director UK Regions @ Avison Young
Jon Race
Managing Director @ MCM Architects
Katie Wray
Assistant Director @ Deloitte
Do We Still Need Offices?
One piece of research suggests that one in four employees in the UK would resign if they were forced to return to the office. This suggests UK employees are more reluctant than other office employees in Europe to return.

There is a potential gulf opening up between what employers want and what employees would like to see happening. People have got a taste for more flexible working and they don’t want to lose it.

But there is still huge value in face-to-face human interaction. It’s a crucial way in which we resolve challenging issues, uncover solutions and come up with new ideas. Persuasion is a far more effective tool when in close, physical proximity than if you’re communicating digitally.
Meeting and interacting with people face to face boosts clear communication, where qauging body language is a major factor.
There are learning implications too in having access to shared physical workspaces. Junior staff gain knowledge and experience from being in a work environment, and remote working deprives them of these things.

The discussion about the future of the office involves different elements, and you can’t simply distil it into a binary yes or no question.

For a great many businesses, organisations and people, the office is essential to the fabric of how they work, but it needs to change.

How the office changes is then the critical question, and the answer doesn’t lie simply in altering layouts or geography.

Real change in the office is all about culture, which is much more intangible than what occupies physical spaces.
How Do We Define Office Culture?
A good office culture promotes collaboration, not just directly, but also as an underlying, basic characteristic. This creates a feeling that you’re surrounded by like-minded individuals working towards a common goal.

This semi-concealed, almost abstract, aspect of culture can make it hard to develop and embed in an office environment. But without it, any overt drive towards greater collaboration will lack a firm foundation.

And if this sounds a little woolly, it’s supported by the rise of values-based recruitment. This is a response to a more discerning talent pool, a new generation of employees

They want to know what a prospective employer stands for before they choose to sign on the dotted line.
But in practical terms, how should a company approach its physical workspace to express its cultural values outwardly?
Winning the War for Talent
How an organisation or business sets up its office, and how this interacts with home or remote working, is essential for attracting and retaining a talented workforce.
The office itself becomes a tactical weapon in the war for talent.
Winning this war isn’t easy – we’re all pretty much in a state of flux. Predicting outcomes is tricky, but waiting on the sidelines to see what happens is not going to be a realistic option for many employers.
They have to get the combination right and offer a greater degree of choice when it comes to being in or out of the office.

And if we aren’t going back to old notions of normal, then one thing we should be able to eliminate is presenteeism. Pre-pandemic, presenteeism was on the rise in the workplace. Research showed that many employees were turning up to work even when they had physical or mental problems. It was as if the notion of being physically present was itself a KPI, regardless of actual activity.

Finding new ways to incorporate flexible working is an opportunity for employers to redefine their workplace cultures, build trust in their employees and reflect a diversity of needs.
It’s about achieving a balance between in-office and remote working.
The Hybrid Concept
The concept of a hybrid workplace is now becoming commonplace, but without necessarily there being a clear path forward for employees.
We know it should involve flexible working, and combinations of different geographical workspaces.
These might involve home working, some sort of office location, or even third spaces, in other, shared workspace locations. Hybrid is a concept that’s still under development, and so far it doesn’t present a definitive answer.

But there is a sense of a genuine need for change, which the pandemic has accelerated and accentuated.
Commuting is no longer something people wish to carry out in a state of blind acceptance that it’s the only realistic alternative. Rather, its unsustainable, inhumane aspects have been thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic.

This feeds into people’s aspirations as employees. Companies that can crack the hybrid code will be the winners in the war for talent.
Conditions for the Future of the Office
Various interdependencies will need to come into play if the office is going to change in a lasting and profound way.

Transport infrastructure needs to improve and adapt to changes such as staggered commuting times.
And local economies may become long-term beneficiaries of home-working, or more localised, third-space shared working facilities.
Enabling more realistic working from outlying areas may also change these areas themselves, regenerating their high streets, for example. And there could be an impact on the housing market.

There looks to be plenty more disruption on the horizon, but with a collaborative, empathic approach to development and meeting people’s needs, it can become a positive force for change.
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