HR Consultant Mary Budd reflects on the return to the office and asks if we need to rethink what the office is for as more and more people demand the freedom to work in a way that works for them.
Let’s face it, the 'return to the office' is not going too well for many companies. Some have decided to forgo the office altogether, have given up their premises or replaced the serried ranks of desks with a handful of hot-desking slots in a smaller space. Others have tried to force people back to old work patterns, only to find that they are exercising what LinkedIn’s Tunji Akintokun described as “The Great Choice” at the recent IPA Talent and Diversity Conference and voting with their feet. Most have settled into a variation of two or three days in the office, with varying degrees of flexibility, but with no clear consensus about what to do if people choose not to turn up. There are no easy answers.
We need to rethink what the office is for, and accept that the answer may be different for people at different levels and stages of life. We may recognise that work has value for most of us beyond filling the bank account, but the benefit and impact on our wellbeing is not always the same.
Talking as I do to a lot of business owners and CEOs, it’s quite noticeable that they are often much keener to return to the old ways of working than their staff. They talk wistfully about missing 'the buzz' and what fun it was, all working together every day. That isn’t surprising.
If you are a senior manager, or better still the boss, the old office structure gave you a great deal of affirmation. People noticed whether you were at your desk or not. Perhaps they straightened up a little when you walked in. When you talked, they listened. They sought your opinion, brought their trickier problems to you and made you feel pretty clever. You probably didn’t even have to make your own coffee. Perhaps most importantly, you could look round the office, see dozens or even hundreds of people all working away productively, and enjoy the warm satisfaction of thinking "I’m making this happen". For many senior people, that was the just reward for long years of hard work, or taking the real risk of setting something up from scratch. The sense of loss is deep and genuine, and should not be underestimated.
However, to survive and prosper we need to recognise honestly that the traditional office setup often worked less well for everyone else. In cities it often meant sharing cramped flats close enough to the office to avoid an increasingly expensive commute. It meant tucking family responsibilities around the edges of a rigid working day. It is not an accident that stress is a real problem for many agency teams. Working in an office can be a lot less fun when you have little control over your thinking time, need to be at your desk at exactly the same time as millions of other people and may get raised eyebrows if your nose is not visibly to the grindstone at all times. We have now got used to a high degree of autonomy, and being trusted to deliver. That genie is not going back into the bottle.
One argument often put forward for going back to office life is the need to train people, particularly newcomers. Yes, the traditional office did allow learning to happen almost by osmosis. Juniors were surrounded by more experienced people, could overhear much of the business that was getting done and took part naturally in team discussions. For people learning the ropes, relationship-building is important too. However, many agencies have recognised this, and have actively used CPD and learning as a method of bonding both remotely and when coming into the office. There has been a great deal of upskilling during lockdown. Yes, it has required thought and creativity to achieve, but when has our industry been short of those?
We seem to be moving towards a world where people value the freedom to work in a way that fits in with their individual circumstances. Personal wellbeing is becoming the priority for many of us, and this means that agencies need to change. It’s possible to see this almost-Darwinism in practice already. The companies that offer the most flexibility are able to attract more and more of the best talent. Physical location is no longer the limiting factor, and these companies may well end up becoming the best places to work, and the ones able to attract the most skilled people from everywhere. It’s not enough to have lovely offices and a great “buzz”. Only this week it has been revealed that 76% of Apple’s staff have expressed dissatisfaction with being forced back to their fabulous premises, even for a few days a week, and many are said to be planning to leave.
During lockdown we had to trust people to deliver what they had agreed, and often had very little insight into when and how they were doing it. There is no need to revert to old ways of managing work if we continue to value outputs and targets rather than when and where that work gets done. Let’s not force people to come into the office without a good reason to be there. Nobody needs to commute for two hours just to answer emails. Unless work is particularly time-sensitive, let’s allow enough flexibility in working hours so that people can fit other things, whether childcare, personal projects or exercise, around it. Above all, we need to ask people what they want and need at this stage of their lives and careers and listen to the answers.
Our industry has a long history of experimenting with different ways to work, and tuning in successfully to the zeitgeist. We should not lose this opportunity to reinvent work in a way that is human, responsive to personal circumstances and respects our individual differences.
Mary has been working as an HR consultant in the industry for nearly 40 years, and was the IPA's Employment Affairs Adviser for 15 years. She was involved in setting up the IPA's CPD programme, as well as serving as a CPD Gold and running the IPA's HR Knowledge Course.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and were submitted in accordance with the IPA terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.