Featured in Property Week on 12 June 2020.
Working from home is not a new idea, it’s been a “perk” for some time, often enjoyed more by senior management than the wider employee base. But suddenly the Coronavirus pandemic has thrust us into a massive home working experiment and the future of the office has become one of the most discussed topics.
We as a business are deeply passionate about the office and the role “space” plays in helping companies thrive and achieve their aspirations. We felt it our responsibility to share our views on what office space can and should mean to small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) of the post-COVID world.
The Work From Home (WFH) experiment
The fact that there are positive reactions to WFH is not a surprise and we believe is in many ways justified.
The rising cost of real estate, both commercial and residential has meant that:
- Office costs are increasingly expansive for SMEs
- Employees who have opted to move to the suburbs to access cheaper housing have had to learn to live with growing daily stressful commutes
- The office layout has trended towards an increased density. From 150+ sq ft per person, it is now not uncommon to see this fall to as low as 50. From personal space to open plan. While this has saved costs it has not always been so generous on personal productivity. Quiet workspace to focus is now at a premium.
Working from home is easier today than it has ever been. Video and cloud computing technology have evolved in a way that integrating multiple locations has never been easier or cheaper. The WFH experiment has also shown to business leaders that staff can be trusted to deliver without being micromanaged. Trust is a great motivator.
There is now no doubt that we can give focused workers the tools they need to do their work from home, and for some, this may prove more productive than the office they have left behind.
The case for space
In light of the above, we believe that office space is so much more than just a place to “do work”. Coming out of the pandemic, businesses will be prompted to assess what role the office plays for their organisation. Specifically, the role it needs to play to accelerate and de-risk a business’ journey to success. We’ve put together eight areas of reflection for business owners.
Collaboration and innovation
Remote working is at its best when working on a clearly briefed end product – it allows you to get your head down free of distractions. We as a business have seen it work particularly well for designers and developers.
In specifying end products and even conceiving them, we have frequently observed the need for broader collaboration and team inputs. When collaborating, remote working is far more challenging. This is where space, designed well, facilitates great end results.
For some, the office will be the most productive place to get work done. For example, sales and customer support teams experience extreme highs and lows moving from good calls to bad ones throughout the day. A strong team presence and access to leadership are vital for emotional support and learning. If highly collaborative teams like these are working in silos and remotely, the output may be compromised as will retention and job satisfaction.
For those reliant on third party suppliers and clients, the office will continue to be a place to present your brand, impress clients and get deals done.
Mental health has been on a steady decline for years, and COVID-19 has created a wealth of new issues. The UN has warned of a global mental health crisis following the mass uncertainty and isolation caused by the public health measures implemented so far.
In recent years, work has undergone a transformation; from “earning a living” to “being a part of something”, with younger generations looking for much more from their workplace. Working from home without physical separation between work and home can be extremely isolating, and for many, the office provides necessary routine, a place to connect and find purpose.
Not everyone has an optimal environment at home. Some may live with housemates and partners also working in small spaces, others may have young children. If companies begin incorporating enforced part or full-time remote working, they will need to support their employees to upgrade their home working setup and be mindful that this may be a detriment for some.
Company culture and loyalty
This is an area we feel strongly about. As a business priding itself on the culture we are building we would find it impossible to develop and nurture that culture with our greatest assets and people, all working remotely all the time. Start-ups will find this particularly challenging as they try and build a culture from scratch.
Without regular physical contact, companies may find the connection between their people and the business becomes more transactional, which we believe will lead to a drop in loyalty and staff retention.
Developing staff and onboarding new team members is a key responsibility of every business and like culture building, space and the office has a very important facilitating role.
It is also key that business leaders remember that they appointed and empowered managers to deliver and each manager has a style distinctive to them. Some prefer a high level of team flexibility and can operate with low face to face time while others flourish in the company of their teams and need lots of interaction to lead.
The role of the office in the future
Despite the media headlines, we believe that like many things in life, the answer of what the future of the office looks like is somewhere more balanced in a well formulated middle ground.
It is the job of every leadership team to understand their business, product, team and individuals sufficiently so that they make the best space decision. At Kitt, we know that every business is different and that your space needs to work hard for your team and the individuals within it. Most importantly it needs to be a worthwhile business investment, and every pound spent on real estate needs to generate business value.
In deciding your WFH policies and how best to think about your office we urge businesses to ask themselves the following questions:
- How is your business configured by function and will that change?
- What does each function need to be productive?
- How collaborative does the business need to be?
- What did your employees like about working during the lockdown and what did they not?
- Is everyone’s home circumstances conducive to home working?
- How reliant on office-based interactions with 3rd parties are you?
- How do you want to build culture and develop existing and new members of your business?
We think it is important that the role of the office is being challenged; for too long offices have been designed to optimise for density and not productivity. The Coronavirus pandemic and the WFH experiment will now push us all to rethink how we need the office to work to our benefit.