Spotlight On: communicating the future of the office
Future office plans are in the spotlight and represent a once in a lifetime opportunity to reset an organisation’s culture. In this article, we reflect on the ebb and flow of the debate in the media and suggest three ways companies might get ahead of the communications curve.
The Covid pandemic is ten months old but the HR consequences are only just beginning for many businesses. Forced lockdowns have brought a myriad of challenges but the key functional decision has so far been easy, with the majority of staff working from home by dictat. The future could look more challenging when businesses have to shape, structure and communicate their own office strategy, and it’s likely to become a new aspect to a company’s ESG framework.
We’ve all followed the somewhat chaotic rollercoaster of opinion over the past ten months. The early momentum was all behind staying at home forever; people loved seeing each other’s homes, a blitz spirit reigned, productivity (briefly) soared and several big tech giants moved early. Twitter said that staff would never have to return, and many others came out on a similar theme that offices were old fashioned and the future lay in a decentralised utopia.
With lockdowns continuing, Zoom fatigue arriving, and mental health deteriorating, then a counter view has become more prevalent. Many top business names have recently said that staff are suffering at home and have extolled the social and developmental role of the office. Listening to these reports you might feel that firms almost have a moral duty to return staff to the family of their colleagues.
The obvious conclusion is that a ‘hybrid’ system will emerge. The majority of businesses are aligning behind messaging that the office should be used for social interaction and sharing ideas, but never for just reading emails. Unilever was the latest business to guide this system, alongside an interesting trial of a four day working week in New Zealand. Several other firms have used similar messaging when committing to new office space in the City of London. Even IWG last week announced a shift in its operating model yesterday from being a landlord to a service provider.
But whilst the ‘hybrid’ model is now the accepted buzzword, there are clearly thousands of nuances and each company will have to judge what’s right for its workforce, based on its sector, age demographic and the nature of the work being conducted. There will also have to be fairness and an example set by senior teams, both in their communications and the example being set (often the same thing).
Crucially, there will need to be real investment to make this future work. Changing a system is great, but only if the infrastructure is tailored to enable it to work. Shorn of its central role, there’s a real risk an office can lose purpose and atmosphere. Setting it up to accommodate more privacy in video calls, more meeting rooms with integrated virtual meeting apps, more social (internal and external) and creative thinking space will be important. It will also need to provide colleagues with a genuine reason to go in, whether that’s a killer location, a gym, or a social activity – plus a culture that makes it all worthwhile.
Staying on the right side of the debate will be crucial. Media will be wary of companies going back to the old norms and thinking that hot desking two or three employees to one desk is the answer to high property costs. Employees will keep a keen lookout that firms are keeping their promises. Having made their ‘big bang’ announcements the onus will be on companies to continue communicating the ongoing benefits of a hybrid system, and show that tailored investment is being made. Having seen some of the benefits of flexibility, this is a subject society genuinely cares about. The communications war is just beginning.
Three ways of staying in front of the debate: