Do you REALLY need an office? How to re-engineer your workspaces

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

The role of the office has been brought into sharp focus during the coronavirus pandemic. Working from home, which hitherto may have been regarded as a perk of knowledge-workers, has been thrust upon the majority of office workers across the globe as the grip of Covid-19 took hold.

This enforced absence from the office and the impact it has had on fluid working practices and workforce dynamics has made leaders adapt at pace: a subject covered in detail during Episode 24 of the Uspire Boostcasts. Mark Francis, Uspire Director of Learning, spoke with HR Directors Sam Buckingham and Claudia Osei-Nsafoah about their expectations of office culture and how organisations are adapting to remote working and social distancing procedures in the workplace.

It is hugely apparent that the leadership skills needed to support a remote team are different to those that have shaped leadership careers so far. Leaders need to be massively attuned to the specific circumstances of individual employees; how vulnerable they are, whether they have family members who are shielding, etc. And they need to acknowledge this individuality and build policy that allows flexible working based on these needs. No longer can a catch-all policy meet the needs of a diverse workforce, and hybrid working practices need to be adopted.

Retaining the company-defining “secret sauce” whilst remote working is of particular concern for organisations where once tightly structured working practices have been replaced with looser, virtual versions. Claudia is HR Director for Sky, who have a workplace environment that is hugely stimulating and integral to the output of the organisation. To retain the value of this and ensure there is no dip in creativity and productivity they are embracing a hybrid of remote and in-office working.

And productivity will be one of the deciding factors on whether the office as we knew it will remain the office as we come to know it.

Working from Home & Productivity

McKinsey & Company, the global management consultancy, have researched the opinion of office space decision makers to get some clarity around the likely future outlook for the office.

Overwhelmingly, workers appear to enjoy working from home, with 80% of people questioned admitting so. And a self-administered productivity test suggests that 41% are more productive, whilst 28% say that they are as productive. This claim of super-productivity is probably rooted in a release from long commutes and a healthier work-life balance.

The measure of productivity can be classed as how much goods and services a worker produces per hour, and unfortunately UK productivity lags some way behind our European neighbours. The average German worker can claim to produce £10 more per hour than a UK worker, whilst a French worker will reach the same productivity by Thursday that a UK worker will need an extra day to achieve. So if we believe the claims from the research that working from home can create super productive workers, could working from home actually help businesses grow?

BBC Radio 4 reported on what is claimed to the be the only empirical study into the productivity of working from home, conducted by Professor Nick Bloom of Stanford University. Prior to the Coronavirus outbreak, a company known to Professor Bloom wanted to understand how working from home might allow them to scale their business without the capital cost associated with office space. The owners were sceptical of the likely productivity of their working from home workforce and as a result were prepared to take a hit on productivity in return for the savings in office space.

They selected a random sample of workers to work from home and measured the impact this had on their productivity. Although random the workers did need to satisfy certain conditions – no children, a spare room which was not a bedroom and capable WiFi.

The company conducting the trial operated in the travel sector and the job roles selected to work from home were bookings operatives. The nature of the role meant that it was possible to accurately measure productivity and the trial concluded that the working from home team were 13% more productive than they would have been in the office.

This was explained as a 3.5% improvement in productivity per minute, measured by actual activity and a 9% improvement due to more minutes in the shift; always starting on time, shorter lunch breaks etc.

At the end of the 9 month trial the project was considered so successful it was rolled out to all team members, allowing everyone in the company to work from home. Although the option was given to everyone, some people from the original trial felt they succumbed too often to the lure of the fridge/TV/bed and therefore decided this complication was too great to remain as working from home. However, those who remained as working from home went on to increase their productivity by 20%

Although this study does present empirical evidence of the potential productivity gains of working from home, the BBC Radio 4 programme goes onto share the opinion from Lynda Gratton of the London Business School, who is a little concerned that there is no data on the productivity of knowledge workers when working from home. It is widely thought that knowledge workers can be more productive when working from home, and as Lynda Gratton points, out 50% of companies do believe their workers can be more productive. But for the other 50% maybe it is the lack of serendipity, which can be so important for knowledge workers, that thwarts productivity: the missed corridor meetings, the impromptu brainstorms, the chance encounters. There is also the risk of working from home inequality. The super-productive group from the working from home study were those with no children, a spare room and great broadband, a combination that is not always possible. If certain jobs were work from home only then those people without this combination may be discouraged from applying.

There is also the issue of cost and social interaction. CEO’s think they can cut their property costs but that cost of creating a home office still needs to be considered and may end up with people taking on the cost of building their own office. Whilst social interaction is also a hugely important part of working life and becomes limited when working from home, indeed according to Radio 4 it is something that 47% of people say they miss.

So how does an organisation re-engineer its workforce and office structure to maximise the effects of working remotely, whilst minimising the inevitable negatives of simply transplanting a workforce into their respective homes.

Workplaces Post-Covid19

Mckinsey considered how to reimagine work and workplaces and came up with four steps

  1. Reconstruct how work is done.

The transition to remote working during lockdown was forced upon most companies with little time to prepare. As such the majority will have simply replicated the office working practice as best they can in a home environment.

This has worked for some but not all. To make this effective as possible it may be necessary to re-engineer the most important processes for each geography, business and function. With the input of employees this should examine their professional-development journey and the different stages of projects.

Maintaining cultural integrity will be important and understanding how existing rituals and practices can be transplanted into a digital experience will be vital for the organisation to retain its identity.

  1. Decide “people to work” or “work to people”

Some groups of talent are less willing to relocate to be close to their employers, exacerbating the need to decide which roles can be done remotely and which need physical interaction. McKinsey suggest allocating roles into one of 4 segments that could classify the value that remote working could deliver:

  • Fully remote [net positive value-creating outcome]
  • Hybrid remote [net neutral outcome]
  • Hybrid remote by exception [net negative outcome but can be done remotely if needed]
  • On-site [not eligible for remote working]

The first 2 categories alleviate the need to recruit locally or relocate candidates as geography no longer plays such an important role.

  1. Redesign the workplace to support organisational priorities

Now may be the time to entirely rethink the physical workplace to support a post-COVID19 world, and in particular to look at it through the lens of organisational priority. Should the primary function of an office be to support those kinds of interactions that cannot happen remotely? Should only employees who need to collaborate be allowed into the office, and only when they need to interact, whilst all other workers work from home, or at least in centres closer to where they live.

Technology will undoubtedly play a role in allowing workers access to an office space. Apps could provide a “building health index” that advises on air quality, number of occupants and how well social distancing is being observed. It could also suggest preferred arrival times to reduce congestion. If the index is poor or the office is too congested then that may dictate people should work from home.

  1. Resize the footprint creatively

A transformational approach to reinventing offices should be considered. This will require a completely new look at the way in which existing office space is serving the needs of the organisation and determine whether this footprint is suitable for the new demands. Indeed, space per employee has been falling consistently since 2004 and currently is at its lowest since the Industrial Revolution with 14.5mper employee [source: Oxford Business Review], a huge challenge for organisations looking to reintroduce workers under new social distancing guidelines. Redesigning workspace to adhere to guidelines is likely to spawn new job roles and even when government guidelines relax, the ingrained need to distance may result in employees demanding space regulations as a necessary responsibility of an employer.

Does office space need to remain within large city centres and is this a prerequisite for attracting young talent, or would smaller, more outlying campuses suit their needs?

Expect this transformation to be a mix of space solutions from a diverse portfolio of:

  • Owned space
  • Standard leases
  • Flexible leases
  • Flex space
  • Co-working space

Leadership Skills

Reconfigured office structures, the office being regarded as a one of many other tools at the disposal of an organisation, and the increase in remote teams, will, as highlighted earlier, require changing leadership skills, increasingly focused around developing high-performance virtual teams.

Research uncovered by the Oxford Business Review has shown that leaders of successful virtual teams tend to:

  • Establish trust quickly through technology channels
  • Ensure team diversity, particularly diversity of thinking
  • Actively manage work life cycles
  • Monitor team progress
  • Increase their own visibility to team members
  • Provide team members with explicit beneficial reasons for engaging in virtual team membership

It also unlocks insight to the composition of successful virtual teams, suggesting that a skills matrix is developed through which team members are chosen and invited at critical points, in tandem with Point 1 from the McKinsey suggestions above.

One particular point of interest from this research is the relative value of shared leadership teams in comparison to more traditional hierarchical leadership. It is thought that the greater levels of learning promoted across a virtual team with shared leadership teams means they can outperform hierarchical teams.

Shared leadership virtual teams are most likely to thrive when they have:

  • Shared purpose
  • Positive internal team environment
  • Neutral social support
  • Employee voice/openness, or the feeling that people can always speak their mind
  • Members with autonomous styles and mutually beneficial areas of expertise
  • External coaching

Relinquishing traditional leadership roles and acquiring new skills may be the outcome of the seismic organisational shifts being experienced by many. A shift from hierarchy, structure and physical workspace to collaboration, coaching and remote working may be the future of the modern office system, presenting the opportunity for organisations to better appeal to talent, improve productivity and reduce costs.

Through our leadership development and commercial capability focus, Uspire help businesses create and manage successful commercial teams, whether they are remote or office-based. Uspire’s senior team are all accredited Master Trainers Online and have delivered a number of successful virtual training programmes over the last few months.

To learn more about how Uspire may help you manage your remote teams then contact Chester Robinson


linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram