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Progress: Bring staff back into the office or continue with remote working? The experts’ view

THE lockdown imperative to work from home has divided the nation. While some have loved the 12-step commute from the bedroom to the dining table, others are counting the days until they can escape to the haven of the office and buy their lunch from Pret A Manger rather than making yet another bog standard sandwich.

A survey into employees’ feelings about remote working shows a polarised workforce. According to research by Totaljobs, just over half (54 per cent) of us want to return to work by the end of June, but 42 per cent want to work from home indefinitely.

A choice now looms over whether to bring employees back to the office or continue with a remote working strategy. Jon Wilson, CEO of Totaljobs, says that employers must communicate clearly and engage with their employees’ preferences and fears around workplace return, or risk breaching trust and loyalty that has been built up during the pandemic.

‘We have needed to adapt over the past couple of months, but the reality is that we are all going to go through change at least one more time as we settle into a new normal,’ he says.

Home sweet home?

While offices have been shuttered, many employers have been considering whether to make remote working the ‘new normal’. There are several advantages to this, including a reduction in rental costs and time for those with long commutes. Some have also found that their offices are unlikely to be fit for purpose under new social distancing guidelines.

‘We decided to give the office up, as we were quite tightly packed and it certainly wouldn’t have allowed us to keep to two metres distancing,’ explains Steven Mayatt, creative director of Pocket Creatives, a video production company. The team of six had rented a space by the day in Shoreditch prior to lockdown but believe they can be just as productive from home.

Closing the office may be a popular move with some staff, too. Property group Cushman & Wakefield found that three quarters of employees would like their companies to embrace permanent flexible working policies.

But there is also evidence that remote working can damage staff morale and productivity, with a third claiming they are less productive. ‘Given the anxiety from lockdown and the ineffectiveness of managers in this new environment, masses of UK workers are likely either to opt out or burnout,’ warns behavioural science expert Octavius Black, Co-founder and CEO of Mind Gym.

Making remote working work

Octavius says that the answer to the productivity slump is not to bring staff back into an office environment, but to develop new skills in leadership that work remotely. ‘The way to prevent this crisis is not to stop remote working, which when properly handled can bring great benefits, but for leaders to step up and develop the new managerial muscles,’ he says.

Paul Ainley, at employer brand agency Chatter, says that employers will need to think through almost every process if they are to make a success of working remotely.

‘Processes for hiring and onboarding, through to challenges around performance management, skills, learning, health and wellbeing, safeguarding and more besides, will need to be reviewed and adapted in order to allow for a more permanent adoption of remote working,’ he says.

Establishing, or re-establishing, an office culture will be vital, with leaders needing to schedule regular video conferences, one-to-one meetings and opportunities to chat.

‘Ensure that any traditions are upheld and a virtual replacement is crafted and set up,’ says Lee Chambers, a psychologist at Essentialise. That means that if you regularly go out for Friday night drinks as a group, you need to carefully consider what might replace this bonding opportunity, such as a Zoom social hour.

A hybrid approach

While many companies are giving up their offices, others will be keeping some office space but using it differently.

Despina Katsikakis, Head of Occupier Business Performance at Cushman & Wakefield, says that offices can be a place of positivity, where employees come less frequently, but connect more strongly.

‘As we look to the future, the office will have a new purpose: to provide inspiring destinations that strengthen cultural connection, enhance learning, encourage bonding among colleagues and customers, and foster creativity and innovation,’ she says.

In the short term, some firms will have staff who cannot come back to an office space because they are vulnerable, shielding or caring for children, while others will be anxious about returning and would prefer to be at home.

Meddbase, a technology company that provides remote working software to doctors, is one company that says it wanted its own staff members to make up their minds about returning.

‘We’ve giving all our staff the choice of working from home until further notice, it’s entirely up to them. If their kids aren’t in school, we don’t expect our employees to come to the office, it’s that simple,’ says Christine Hart, Chief Service Delivery Officer.

Lee, at Essentialise, counsels against forcing employees back to the office. ‘It is best to find alternative work or assist them to continue to work remotely while they adapt to the world becoming safer again.’

Whatever the ‘new normal’ looks like for your business, lawyer Katie Fudakowski, Employment Partner at Farrer & Co, says there are legal considerations that you must take into account when allowing some, but not all, employees to work from home.

‘Implementing a home working policy won’t ever be a one-size-fits-all solution, and it is imperative that employers carefully consider the approach they choose to take,’ she says. ‘At a time of such uncertainty, the communication and understanding between employers and employees is key.’

THE EXPERTS

Despina Katsikakis, head of occupier business performance at Cushman & Wakefield

Jon Wilson, CEO of recruitment website TotalJobs

Katie Fudakowski, employment partner at law firm Farrer & Co

Lee Chambers, life coach and business psychologist at Essentialise

Octavius Black, co-founder and CEO of behavioural science firm Mind Gym

Paul Ainley, partner at employer brand agency, Chatter

‘We’ve given up our office — and may not go back’

Adapting: Phrasee wants its staff to feel safe

Phrasee, the AI-powered copywriting company, gave up its office in Vauxhall after lockdown, but is working hard to ensure that the company culture stays in place. ‘As a self-confessed extrovert, it’s fair to say I was nervous about lockdown,’ says Vic Peppiatt its founder. ‘I love spending time with the team and our customers, partners and prospects. I’m so proud of the culture we’ve built at Phrasee and am immensely proud of the people we’ve attracted and retained over the last five years.’ The company has a staff of 50, currently working from home.

‘We have given up the office until we are in a position to commute in and work together safely. We obviously won’t rule out having an office again in the future. We wouldn’t want to put the team at risk, especially while we are thriving in our WFH environments.’

Phrasee has increased the frequency of virtual townhall meetings from monthly to bi-weekly, added weekly free personal training sessions over Zoom and blocks out time in employees’ calendars for office chitchat. ‘Maintaining the culture has been a primary focus,’ Vic says. ‘We have, of course, adjusted along the way and surveyed the team at regular intervals, but I hope we have created the right balance of initiatives. My personal “happy place” in the virtual office world has been Wednesday evenings when we unite Phrasee Phonics, the office choir. It’s an hour of absolute, unadulterated joy.’ She adds that the decision taken to give up the office, was not to save money, but to keep staff safe. ‘I would urge anyone looking to use this pandemic as an excuse to cut costs to give their heads a shake.’

‘We’ve rented a base camp so staff can meet face-to face’

Wall’s well: Friday, has rented a coach house for its team

Family-owned media group Friday was in the middle of planning an office move when lockdown occurred.

‘Pre COVID-19 we were planning a move to relocate our head office from Mid Sussex to our new central Brighton location in early 2021,’ explains co-founder Sam Kidger. ‘Lockdown arrived and we found ourselves vacating early and setting up 250 staff to work from home in a matter of days.’

The company operates online marketplaces and has staff all around the world.

‘With offices in Barcelona, Bangalore, Wales and Preston we were used to remote working, but going fully remote was a test.’

Sam adds that although the change has worked really well, they have missed face-to-face interaction so much they’ve decided to rent a new property rather than remain fully remote.

‘We have decided to rent out a base camp, an old coach house in Brighton for the next eight months,’ he says.

‘Departments will be coming in on a rotational basis to check in with colleagues, set up and report back on tasks, carry out training and generally get the support and motivation that you can only get face-to-face.

‘They won’t be expected to come in full time but if they wish they can come in as much as they wish. The space has been set up to make them feel safe and comfortable.

‘The lockdown has made us take a leap of faith towards adopting a working structure that was very much part of our vision for the future anyway. The last few months have been testing but we have thrived.’

‘We’ll allow more remote working going forward’

Rethink: Christy says Twilio will be flexible about an office return

Twilio, which provides customer communications in the cloud for the likes of M&S, Uber and Airbnb, is expecting a fifth of its staff to work from home in future.

‘Working from home has been demystified,’ says Christy Lake, Twilio’s Chief People Officer. ‘We no longer have to ask the question if teams are as effective when working from home. We know that they can be.’ Twilio has changed the way we think about remote work and I think we’ll be more flexible than we already are about working from home and where roles need to be placed.’

The company is planning an office return, however.

‘It won’t be a flip-the-switch situation — we’ll have thoughtful staging of re-entry. For example, employees may go back in cohorts and be required to wear masks and there may be a time restriction for working in the office after travel,’ Christy says. ‘We also will be spacing out desks and avoiding meetings in conference rooms in the short run. We will not stockpile the PPE supplies we would need to accommodate our return to work at the expense of healthcare and frontline workers.’

She says that she’s learnt a lot from the company’s forced move to a remote working situation.

‘I recently joined Twilio and feel immediately connected to my teams and the company at large. That’s a result of spending several hours a day in one-to-ones with new colleagues and employees over video. As a leader, your responsibility is to rally the troops and align everyone to one mission. The future of remote work makes this responsibility more important than ever.’