I recently visited a large commercial property located off Birmingham’s ring road arranged as a call centre, which was sitting almost vacant. The building contained large rooms with huge banks of fitted desks, screens & phones. The company director advised they were now downsizing as their call centre teams were largely now working from their homes & the building with its associated parking was frankly too large. This conversation mirrored one other appointment I had days only earlier with a creative company in the jewellery Quarter, who too were commenting upon their studio offices now being too large, with many of their team members working successfully from home. Clearly I have heard this before in recent months but is there now a marked trend?
Virtual work as a concept was strongly debated up until 2020 when Covid hit, when most of the world then had to do it, and actually did it well helped by technology which was then available albeit not thoroughly proven at the time. A staff training company I know reported that a client of theirs with a large call centre actually saw their customer satisfaction/net promoter scores increase significantly after they had sent everyone home to work, and it has successfully sustained the higher levels through to today. Because this transition happened abruptly, many employers are still on the hook for large amounts of office space with some senior directors now trying to rationalise bringing everyone back full time but running into the reality that the genie is now really out of the bottle.
For the accountants the drive, and indeed sometimes the push of staff into their own homes to work is in order to shrink the office size & consequent costs, is an obvious move. Not only can rent costs be cut, the Business Rates can too, as are the consequent monthly utility & office service bills. Incoming Phones can be directed out, home based computers can readily run office systems and Microsoft Teams plus other platforms easily allow daily meetings to take place.
Increasingly for many firms there is a realisation that you are now not an employer of choice if you require people to work in the office five days a week, for most office roles. Manufacturing, hospitality, transportation - those require being on site full time, but recent America based statistics show they are losing qualified staff for other industries that allow remote working. Simon Sinek, a leadership theorist/author recently said that employers should stop demanding people now return to the office, and instead ask their teams why they aren't excited about coming back - is it a matter of health safety/COVID, or was it an unpleasant experience pre-COVID for reasons of poor workplace culture or dogmatic leadership. Addressing the latter with some flexibility of work schedules ,meaning allow for some virtual work and a focus on the quality of results, not physical attendance, may be the foundation of what the future of work looks like. People do still need to connect/collaborate in person going forward but as many are already finding they will not necessarily have to commute into an office five days a week to accomplish that.
There might however be a future social cost which hasn’t yet been quantified. Some employees currently working remotely successfully are now reporting that there isn’t the same social experience. being away from the office banter or opportunities to give advice or indeed receive advice on the job itself notwithstanding the means to communicate with or without video. Whilst for others, especially settled professional people, the opportunity to work from home is often something to be relished. This being away from the commute & the mayhem of interrupted office activities & working in the comfort of their own houses, which allows time to concentrate & importantly gives more free time before & after. For younger people the opportunity is increasingly clearly a doubled edged sword because so much of the quality of their early office life comes from the social interaction with one’s peer group both in & out of the work environment. Whilst the one bed rented city apartment can be a great urban base, it can also quickly become an urban prison if you wake up & work only five meters from your bed. The same applies to a room in a family house or shared apartment if other members are home. The dream is working from their VW van parked by an empty surfers beach is clearly possible but I sense the newspaper & lifestyle blog coverage is far bigger than the audience itself.
I sense we are at the early days of this journey & the demands of firms plus their employees still are to be seen. Offices as a social base are clearly the way forward