Do we still need a physical office?

01 June 2021

While the pandemic has transformed the way we work, it has also radically changed the traditional, long-held views of the workplace. 

Having been able to create a fully functional workspace at home and grasp the technology required to stay connected to our colleagues, clients, and markets, it is no surprise to see so many businesses questioning whether a physical office is still needed.  And if it is needed, what should it look like and how should it operate?

This is an argument that can be viewed from two very different perspectives. 

On one hand there are the practical considerations.  If productivity and functionality can be supported while the financial costs of running a full-scale office are cut, surely that’s a massive win?

On the other hand, however, there are the emotional factors to consider.  

Is a loose collection of individuals working from home going to engender and sustain a cohesive, collaborative, and creative culture?  Moreover, is it a model that will safeguard employee wellbeing and the feeling we genuinely have a long-term place in our organisation?

History has shown us that when we’re dealing with two such contrary opinions, the answer is likely to be somewhere in the middle.  But as we start the journey back to recovery it is an answer we have to find if we are going to give our businesses the flexibility and resilience they’ll need should we need to lockdown again or find the short-term trading environment is tougher than we thought.

The first part of the decision-making process must be to decide whether you actually need a physical office.  To help you reach that decision we’d suggest you carefully consider the following 7 factors:

1. Cost

With so much uncertainty around the prospect of lowering overheads is always going to be attractive.  Office space is expensive, particularly in London, and this has made both a virtual model and downsizing appealing. 

However, there are alternative ways to lower your property costs. 

With the demand for office space predicted to fall and the popularity of a commuting into a city at an all-time low, there are deals to be done.  Landlords are also likely to offer more flexible, short-term leases you could take advantage of while you make your long-term decision.

2. Technology

Whether you are planning to continue to work from home, return to the office or find a solution somewhere in between, the technology you choose and the way you use it will be crucial.

By this stage your people probably have the hardware they need but if they’re working from home, how good are the elements underpinning that hardware?  Their Wi-Fi speed and reliability of their connectivity, their ability to print and their ability to use and circulate data securely.

These are the elements that make the difference between efficiency and disruption. 

Although they are arguably managed more easily if people are working from the same physical location, there are some simple steps you can take to ensure you have the infrastructure required to support either a long-term remote working or hybrid model.

The first is to ask an expert to audit your current workflow processes and practices.  They will be able to identify where you can make immediate improvements to the way you collect, manage, and distribute your work in progress and minimise the potential for duplication and mistakes.

3. Collaboration

Good businesses run on collaboration.  The more people work together, the better their ideas will be.  In addition, having the ability to collaborate with our colleagues is good for our morale and mental wellbeing.

Although video technology is excellent, affordable and accessible, genuine collaboration is harder to achieve virtually.  The long-term potential for coming up with the very best ideas may be lost if we continue to exclusively work virtually.

This is not simply a physical vs virtual argument.  Thought needs to turn towards how a physical office should look whether you decide to return to the office or implement a more flexible hybrid model.  You need to think about how your people meet and how you will receive guests whilst ensuring you meet the required social distancing guidelines. 

How will you lay out your workstations so people have secure access to each other?

How can you design a hot desking or ‘hoteling’ model that’ll encourage employees to come in but in their preferred way?

How will you redesign your communal, meeting, and social spaces to encourage attendance and interaction?

4. Flexibility

One of the key benefits of home working has been the opportunity to improve our work-life balance. 

Without a commute, internal meetings, and unscheduled interruptions from colleagues, productivity levels have – according to many – actually improved whilst working remotely.  You can also choose your hours and work around children and other commitments. 

When you add to that you can have your music on, make a drink and have the temperature just as you like it, it comes as no surprise studies repeatedly show a huge number of people would prefer to keep this newfound flexibility.

But it doesn’t suit everyone.  The lack of a dedicated workspace (particularly if you’re in a shared house), being constantly on hand for family, not having outside space or feeling you don’t have the time to get some fresh air can impact on some employee’s mental health. 

They have found remote working has had a negative effect on their work/life balance, that they have found it impossible to separate their working life from their personal life and the boundaries that would have existed in more normal times have pretty much disappeared.

With this in mind it is clear businesses leaders will need to consider both points of view as they seek to find a model that combines the best of virtual and physical working.

5. Client contact 

How much time you need to spend in the office with clients is another consideration.

If you regularly host clients, you will need at least some well-appointed physical space so you come across as professional.  If you rarely host clients (and can do so in an external venue), the virtual model could continue to work.

There is also the argument that we have all got used to meeting virtually over the last year so continuing to meet on Teams or Zoom should continue to meet expectations.  

Serviced offices could again provide a workable midpoint.  You can book fully equipped meeting spaces and hot desks in additional locations as and when required if your team regularly travel.

How will you redesign your communal, meeting, and social spaces to encourage attendance and interaction? 

6. Image 

A strong brand and reputation will play an important part in helping us navigating the difficult months ahead.  Having an office that portrays the right image and has the right address is a living embodiment of your brand.  Similarly, knowing you are where you’ve always been will reinforce your market position in your clients’ eyes. 

While this looks like a win for the physical office, there are again alternatives. 

A reduction in space in the same location is an obvious one but will landlords compensate for a reduced square footage by placing a premium on the space you wish to maintain?

Serviced offices in a similar location is another option.  They offer an additional level of flexibility and remove the costs of keeping a front of house staff and managing meeting rooms.

7. Environment 

Green credentials are now a pre-requisite.  According to Unilever a third of consumers want to do business with companies they can see are taking environmental considerations seriously. 

Moving to a virtual model or reducing your office space will reduce your carbon footprint because air conditioning, heating, lighting, and electricity are all enormous carbon producers.  The reduction in the CO2 linked to the daily commute – particularly if it’s made by one person in one car – will also help the environment.  This was proven by the sharp drop in carbon emissions during lockdown. 

As we seek to find a new way of working that suits our businesses, our customers, and our staff, it is  clear the “toothpaste is out the tube” and it’s going to be impossible to get it back in.  

This means a wholesale return to where we were is highly unlikely but to what degree can we balance the benefits of virtual working against the need for a physical office?  We’d suggest that comes down to your specific needs and we trust working through these 7 key factors will allow you to identify whether virtual, physical or hybrid will best serve your needs

 

 

 

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