With lockdown restrictions over, organisations are now planning their post-pandemic workplace strategy. This moment presents us with a unique opportunity to learn from the past two years of home working and use those lessons to create better offices in the future.

Now is the time to understand what we got wrong about work and workplaces before the crisis, reimagine the role of offices and put people at the centre of their design.

Miles McLeod

Workplace Consultant

22nd Mar 2022

AMC Network's London office has a social hub with a coffee bar at its centre

Lessons learned

Minimise your dependency on desks

Before the pandemic, many businesses viewed the office as nothing more than a place to store desks. Most contained a 1:1 employee-to-desk ratio and the expectation was that employees arrived in the morning, sat down at their designated desk, and did their work.

Desks are crucial to lots of your employees’ daily tasks, but they only serve one purpose: routine concentration work. For many people, this one-dimensional view of the office was unimaginative, uninspiring, and uninviting. It also failed to meet their broader needs.

The past two years have demonstrated that work is multi-faceted. Over the course of one day, the average employee engages in numerous activities. Concentration work is important but so too is their ability to meet with colleagues, collaborate, share ideas, and even socialise with them.

With so much emphasis on individual concentration work, desk-heavy offices struggled to facilitate interaction and compounded the issue of departmental silos because everyone was shackled to their workstation with little opportunity for cross-team interactions.

Bottomline Technologies' office in Reading provides a variety of work settings

Create a more authentic sense of agility

Often, businesses had developed a superficial agility. In many cases, the choice for employees was binary: desk or meeting room. Meanwhile, the idea that being agile meant placing some collaboration booths sporadically throughout the office became all too common.

To rectify this inefficient way of working, businesses took a ‘build it and they will come’ approach by purchasing a few ‘agile’ settings. But they did so without considering a data-driven agile strategy — no information on how people used the office, what settings they needed to perform their tasks, and how often they used these spaces.

In Thoughtwork's London office, people can work in a variety of spaces

Loosen your flexible working policy

Prescriptive home working policies were limiting and inflexible. Often, permission to work from home was decided either by formal request or written into the contract.

At the same time, many business leaders didn't trust their employees to work effectively away from the office. They believed in line-of-sight management and - in their defence - had much less available evidence that greater employee flexibility could boost productivity and wellbeing.

As offices reopen, it's clear that many leaders are still worried about losing their workforce's loyalty if employees continue to work from home, a view surely heightened by recent reports of a 'Great Resignation' spreading throughout the globe.

Trust your people to work from home to avoid the 'Great Resignation'

Put your people first

Historically, real estate decisions drove workplace change. Many businesses viewed the workplace as a cost centre – the sea of desks and a roof over their employees’ heads. As a result, investment in the office mostly occurred when it was time to accommodate a growing headcount or rationalise space for OPEX savings.

Looking forward, your organisation can turn this on its head by using the pandemic as a catalyst for change. Rather than be governed by property costs or employee turnover, you have an opportunity to transform the office into a profit centre, as an enabler for productivity and wellbeing, a symbol of your brand, and a crucial talent recruitment and retention tool. Shaping the workplace around the expectations, desires and goals of your people is the key to futureproofing your business.

UK Green Building Council workers

UK Green Building Council's London office has many wellbeing features, like this green wall

Changing the workplace for the better

Create offices with purpose in mind

What do employees need? How will they use your space? These are questions that should guide your thinking. As an organisation, you also need to understand how purpose varies by individual, team, and department. Some companies may need to change employee contracts to support remote working and have the office as a fully hybrid space. Some teams, such as finance, may spend a week in the office at the end of the month for collaborative work. It’s also important to remember that individual preferences depend on a person’s role. On average, admin staff need to use desks far more frequently than managers or sales team members do.

In the Body Shop's London office, its purpose is reflected throughout the design

Offer more than just a desk

Your office needs to offer employees more than a desk. It must provide them with settings and experiences that they cannot get at home – flexibility, choice, the option to collaborate and the opportunity to socialise. That said, you must not neglect desk-based work completely because some staff may not have optimum working environments at home, depending on their age, location, mental health, and other personal circumstances.

It's also crucial that you make decisions for the long term. Attracting people back to the office after the pandemic following so much uncertainty is critical, but a strategy built to last also means creating offices that can attract people long into the future. Increasingly, employees want to work for employers that provide exceptional workplaces and find the right balance in flexibility, so it’s important that you get these elements right.

Morgan Sindall wooden feature in office design

Morgan Sindall's London office offers flexibility so people can work in a way that suits them

Build your social capital

Although the office is still a place of work, it must be a social space. Since the pandemic began, many surveys have found that social contact is the thing that people have missed most about the office. According to global employee experience assessor Leesman, one in two employees from more than 279,000 surveyed report that their home office doesn’t support ‘informal social interaction’. This number is stark, especially when we consider that 76% of office-based employees have told Leesman that their office supports social interaction.

As a result, your organisation must prioritise social capital in any workplace change programme. Essentially, it represents the intangible value of social networks, team cohesion and relationships. If social capital is low, the higher the risk to employee loyalty and people leaving your organisation for greener pastures.

Perspectum pool table supporting informal office interaction

Perspectum Diagnostic's Oxford office was designed to bring people together

Focus on the Three Cs

Social capital may sound like a gimmick, particularly to the employees who you are trying to convince. A far more intuitive way to present it is through the ‘Three Cs’: community, collaboration and camaraderie.

  1. Community When an organisation is connected by more than just a company name, shares values, and embraces a common culture that manifests in the workplace.
  2. Collaboration The main driver behind collective decision-making and one of the most significant influences in modern-day office design.
  3. Camaraderie As more than just an outcome of social interaction, it allows employees to build lasting relationships and create better business outcomes.

Superdrug's Croydon office brings people together to collaborate

Communicate the changes effectively

For employees to embrace workplace change, your organisation must make conscious decisions and communicate them with clarity. People are more receptive to change when you take the time to explain the ‘why’. If social capital is too fluffy as a concept, you need to break down the ‘Three Cs’, how the office helps bring them to life, and how they can support employees.

Work with employees to make them feel that they have a say in the decision-making process and any changes are made in their best interests.

There is no room for ambiguity. As an employer, it’s your duty to set clear expectations for the workplace model that you implement, including how often people must be in the office, on which days, and the settings available to them when they get there.

Your hybrid working model will likely sit between one of three options, each requiring a more significant level of commitment and preparation:

Telling employees to come to the office for a set number of days a week is, arguably, the simplest. However, you would still need to ensure that employees understand why they must be in the workplace on those days.

Bestowing decision-making power on department heads to manage their team’s level of flexibility; this would require training for managers.

Giving employees total freedom of choice would require the highest level of management training, with the need to manage remote teams sensitively and with empathy.

Standard Life's Birmingham office uses graphics to inspire people

Lead by example

Managers must lead from the front during times of significant change. Many people are likely to feel anxious or even reluctant to work under new workplace rules, so it’s important for leaders to practice what they preach. If your organisation decides to mandate a set number of office days within a hybrid system, for example, your leadership team must be present and visible on those days. It can never be ‘one rule for us and another for them’.

Likewise, a flexible or agile workplace can bridge the gap between management and staff, bringing people together in a way that increases collaboration and encourages information flow between everyone.

Anomaly's London office give leaders spaces to engage with their teams

Don’t be afraid to fail

You will get things wrong in the post-pandemic office, especially on the first go. Although we may be over the worst of the crisis, the future is full of unknowns. As such, it’s important that your organisation is open to testing new initiatives, learning from mistakes, and remaining flexible – treating the office as if it were in beta, a place that can constantly evolve according to new evidence, data, knowledge and lived experiences. New ways of working may prove to be a poor cultural fit, or unable to meet the practical needs of your employees or visitors. When this happens, it’s vital that you are willing to learn and adapt.

...it's important that your organisation is open to testing new initiatives, learning from mistakes and remaining flexible...

Three UK's office in Reading was designed with 'adaptive re-use' in mind, enabling them to learn through trial and error

Reframe what it means to work

There must be recognition that work is no longer a place where employees go but a thing people do. The much-hyped ‘return to work’ suggests that people haven’t been working these past two years. Nothing could be further from the truth. Research shows that, in many cases, people are working longer days and have faced bigger workloads while at home. That’s why any workplace change programme that embraces a greater level of hybrid working must move your organisation from an input-based culture (measured by the number of hours employees spend by their desk) to an output-based system in which micro-management disappears, the organisation agrees achievable goals with employees, and provides more guidance and empathy along the way.

Thoughtworks ping pong table in office

Thoughtworks uses a ping pong table for both work and play- merging the two concepts

Create a workplace that prioritises your people’s health and happiness

There is lots of evidence that working away from the office and colleagues for such a long period has increased people’s anxiety and feelings of loneliness. According to a survey by UK health charity Nuffield Health undertaken during the pandemic, 80% of Brits felt that working from home has negatively impacted their mental health.

It’s good for people to be around others. Being in the same place with colleagues or customers gives us energy. This allows us to build friendships, camaraderie, and trust at work. Face-to-face interaction means your employees are more likely to feel part of a team and develop a stronger sense of togetherness. That’s the defining lesson of the office pre and during the pandemic, and one your organisation can ill-afford to forget when creating the future office.

BAE Royal Navy face to face staff interraction

BAE / Royal Navy's Portsmouth office was designed for people working together