The COVID-19 pandemic exposed knowledge workers from across the world to the benefits of working from home. Despite the best efforts of some bosses, the genie is out of the bottle and is showing no signs of being put back in at scale. Employees have recognised the benefits of working from home sometimes both to themselves and their organisation: shortening their working day through no commute, eating cheaper and better food, having more chances to exercise, increased ability to focus and complete focused work and more. Some see little reason to come to offices at all, although there are benefits to working there sometimes, such as building relationships, socialising and working together more effectively.
Organisations around the world are now debating the merits of hybrid working models, in which employees spend around half the time working from home and half the time working from the office. These models have been adopted by various types of company, from law firms to technology companies and all in between. Although hybrid working potentially fixes many problems, it does leave one big one when it comes to real estate. Organisations are now commonly left with large real estate portfolios that are largely unused, especially on Mondays and Fridays, with many people not coming into the office even if there are guidelines to come in 2-3 days per week.
Now, many organisations are faced with a choice as they decide on the next steps of their workplace strategy. Do they attempt to “magnetise” the workforce to come back into the office more? Or do they try to “mandate” them to? Getting people to actually use offices again has proven difficult for a number of reasons. There is now a value proposition that needs to be made: if employees are going to spend around 2 hours per day travelling to go to a place that is more distracting and less productive, employers are going to have to make it worth their while. This is difficult for many employers to contemplate as they are not used to being in a position of negotiation with their workforce, being more accustomed to telling them what to do and having it done. That is demonstrably not working though.
Most companies go out of their way to hire intelligent people, who they then present with an arbitrary number of days per week to be in the office without any adaptation to the type of work they are doing. People who do 4 days per week of focused work mainly by themselves are going to struggle if they are in the office for 3 days per week and people who spend a lot of time collaborating with people based in other locations are just going to be coming into the office to do virtual calls for example, both of whom will be taking up office space that someone else probably needs more. Rather than being empowered to find out what works well for them and their role, many of these intelligent people are rightly identifying the arbitrariness of office mandates, questioning and/or resisting the rules that do not work for them.
Rather than allow this tension to become a potential flashpoint for discontent, organisations should work on making their hybrid working policy make sense. Identify personas, types of employee who work in certain ways and build rules around their requirements. Work to understand how people actually work, who they are collaborating with and how much and how they work best instead of arbitrary, one-size-fits-all approaches that ultimately benefit nobody. If organisations truly want to get people into the office, they need to give them a good reason and be willing to be flexible. They need to start from the position that everyone wants to do their work well and understand how they can help people do that, because companies that fail to understand their workforce are going to encounter severe difficulties in remaining competitive.
Once organisations have identified the right patterns of office attendance for each segment of the employee population, there is still the question of how to actually get people to come into the office, how to overcome the value proposition and actually make it worth it. The office should be a place that people want to come and feel they are missing out if they are not there. Here are some of the ways to boost office occupancy, particularly on less popular days:
- Not all office days are created equal – people fundamentally do not want to work in the office on Mondays or Fridays because it is difficult to outweigh the benefit of starting the week or weekend without having to commute. If using 3 days per week in the office as a guideline, consider making it 3 days per week or 2 if one of them is a Monday or Friday. This could help to smooth out office occupancy throughout the week, avoiding high peaks of busyness and troughs of almost total emptiness.
- Work the commute – commuting later in the day can mean emptier trains where people can get seats and are relaxed enough to work on. Make the commute work time if it can be used productively. This would avoid lengthening the working day of employees and would make it an easier proposition for them to come into the office.
- Make it social – the top reason why people come into offices is to socialise with their colleagues. Despite the fact that they are there to do a job rather than socialise, humans are social animals and ignoring this aspect of human nature will prove detrimental. Curate social activities that take place in work time (this is important; if people have to give up their own time to attend, impact will be severely reduced). Make activities inclusive rather than centred around alcohol.
- Give a compelling reason – as above, intelligent people will realise that X days per week in the office is arbitrary. Show people that they work better and more effectively when they are together and that there is evidence to prove it. This can be backed up by managing people via objectives rather than time, really showing them the benefit of working more effectively.
There are all kinds of ways to encourage people to come to offices. What is different now compared to before the pandemic is that organisations need to make effort to make people want to come to the office. While some think they can force people, working in the office all the time is not the best way to work and has not been for a long time. Ultimately those people will often look elsewhere, towards other companies that will give them more flexibility if that is what they value.
Working in offices is not perfect and never has been; they are often distracting and difficult to focus in. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. People work together better when they like each other, and they do not generally get to like each other more by talking about work. Employers have to acknowledge that “distractions” are actually a form of investment in the social dynamics of the company and make the company function better. This means recognising small social moments as work and adjusting workloads accordingly to account for “distractions” in the office. If they really want people to come into the office, they will need to realise that everything that goes on in there contributes to a happier, more collaborative and more successful company. It is time to start thinking cleverly about hybrid working implementations and finding a true balance between the needs of employers and employees.