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Office-working isn’t dead, but it will look a bit different

Working from home has its perks, but long-term remote working with limited in-person contact is tough. While the pandemic has shown that remote working is possible, it’s also exposed the many benefits of working in an office.

Why offices are still needed

The consistent and extended period of working from home has had a negative impact on wellbeing. No matter what we think we need as individuals, people need interaction with others. ‘Herding’ together is instinctual and socialising can reduce negative emotions.

While technology makes it easier to communicate with colleagues, it also makes it harder to switch off. Travel between the office and home provides the downtime needed to adjust between work and home life. But commuting from the kitchen to the bedroom doesn’t have the same effect.

The office also provides changes of scenery. A walk to the kitchen or moving between meeting rooms provides variety, which helps stimulate thinking. It also creates opportunity for serendipitous meetings, which could lead to new thinking and innovation.

People can be just as creative at home as the office, but some creative thinking benefits from face-to-face interaction. Slow internet connections, combined with the formalities of video conferencing, can hold back the natural exchange of collaborative thinking.

Face-to-face contact also helps build and maintain company cultures, which is important for attracting and retaining talent. Extended periods of working from home risks eroding the work done establishing a unique business culture.

Importantly, the office provides human connection that is vital for mental wellbeing. “Face-to-face communication contributes to all kinds of wellbeing including physical, cognitive, and emotional. On the flip side, a lack of human connection detracts from mental health and physical wellness. Some of this connection can be effectively facilitated by technology, but not all of it.” Forbes, ‘Why the office simply can’t go away’.

So, what will be different?

Inevitably, there will be a period of adjustment while companies figure out what the new way of working looks like. We expect the flexibility to choose to be at the core of many new working policies. Spotify’s new ‘work from anywhere policy’ is likely to be one of many.

Flexibility was one of the findings in Steelcase’s research into what employees need and expect from the office in the future. Steelcase found that people want to choose where to work or to adapt spaces based on the task they’re doing.

“While some people feel working from home has allowed them to navigate their day and avoid distractions, nine of 10 countries rank a “quiet, professional environment” in their top five reasons for wanting to return to the workplace, suggesting that home is not always ideal for focus.”

The study was conducted in 10 countries with over 32,000 people across multiple studies. The top three things people say they want from their office are linked to productivity. “To collaborate with others effectively, easier access to tools and resources and the ability to focus. People want a better experience in which they can easily shift between group and solo work in both physical and digital environments.”

The research also showed that people want a deeper sense of belonging, to connect with colleagues and be part of a shared purpose. “People who have lived through a crisis want inspiration — they want to feel a part of something meaningful,” writes Steelcase. “The workplace can intentionally foster meaningful interactions and signal that change and adaptation are part of the culture and something to be embraced.”

Businesses around the world are currently exploring what ‘back to work’ means for them. While some businesses will attempt to go back to the 9 to 5, we expect to see many more adapt their office spaces and ways of working. The new way of working will embrace the collaborative benefits of in-office, collaborative work with the perks of solo remote working.

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