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The ‘traditional’ office… gone forever?

CHANGE

The last few months have taught us a thing or two about it. How to adapt to it. How to develop with it. How not to resist it. And while we’ve had to cope with increased change across many different facets of life, arguably one of the biggest has been the change in the way we work.

For some it’s been easy. For others, more difficult. And as we start to shift back to some form of normality, one of the questions I’ve heard most from friends and industry contacts over the last few weeks is: “Still working from home? When are you returning to the office?”

THE BIG SHIFT

How we dealt with the disruption to working life as we knew it depended primarily on two things – the infrastructure to allow us to work from home and our ability to cope with change. While sales of office chairs went through the roof and businesses quickly adapted to the needs of their customers (think Koala’s pop-up desk), we grew far too familiar with the likes of Zoom and the inner workings of our inbox. Thankfully, as an agency we were well set up for remote working with the well-oiled machines of Monday, Slack and Google Drive (to name a few), but the main change came with becoming more familiar with the four walls of our home and the people in it. For some it meant working from a makeshift desk in the bedroom, for others a noisy kitchen table surrounded by kids toys and for others, a half comfortable/largely ergonomically-challenged sofa.

THE NEW WORLD

So as the likes of Twitter and Facebook, come out with sweeping statements around working from home forever (essentially to cut costs), it begs the question, what will the workplace of the future look like? And what is the role of the ‘traditional’ office?
While some businesses will be quick to return to their old ways of working as soon as they can, for the open-minded, it’s a key opportunity to reset and reevaluate the entire role of the office.

Most businesses have proven they can work remotely, so the question is, is it the best long-term approach? Have we adapted simply because we’ve had to? Have we been more productive as there’s been nowhere else to go? Is ‘working from home’ one big social experiment, the results of which are still unknown?

Antony Slumbers, a predictor of commercial real estate trends, said on a podcast this week that we’re in a similar quandary to that of the retail industry ten years ago when, “in the same way we realised we didn’t need a shop to go shopping, we’ve realised we don’t need an office to do work”.

While remote working is nothing new, the speed at which the entire world had to adapt to working from home took us by surprise. Now, we have an incredible opportunity to look at how we do things and intentionally change things for the right reasons. It’s time to take a human-centred approach and look at what’s best for your business, your teams and your clients.

Now is a time to listen to your people and create the best environments to allow them to do their best work – wherever that may be.

We took the first step in that journey and surveyed the entire agency on how they felt about working from home, returning to the office and any changes they’d like to suggest. While most loved the autonomy over hours, the lack of commuting, and the improved lifestyle aspect, everyone spoke about missing the team and their desire for more human connection. Some spoke of the impact on their mental health, while others said they missed interacting with people outside their core team.

While national research says most people want to work from home one to two days a week, research also shows people start to feel isolated if they work remotely for more than 15 hours a week.

So why can’t we do both?

BUILD THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

There’s absolutely pros and cons of each. We’re an integrated agency and while we had all agency catch-ups a number of times throughout the week, virtual pub quizzes, daily team huddles and one-on-one catch-ups, I do believe we became more siloed working from home – at the expense of our culture.

Creativity and innovation comes from a diverse range of viewpoints. From working with people with different skill sets and backgrounds. From those moments of interaction in the kitchen or the hallway. Pixar talks about creativity coming from those serendipitous moments, and I wholeheartedly believe it to be true. Yes we made things work remotely, on pitches, on client work, on agency projects, but we missed all the good stuff in between. The shared moments, the banter, the opportunity to interact with others on the fly. While there’s no doubt the connection and communication was there in droves and our team showed an incredible amount of tenacity throughout ‘these times’, the empathy gap is more difficult to manage when you’re dealing through screens.

Of course there are times we need to be physically together and there are times we don’t. We need to support people to do their best work and ensure the times we do come together are bloody excellent.

SO IS THE OFFICE DEFUNCT?

Absolutely not, it’s about changing the way we view the office. From somewhere we need to be to perform a function, to a space that enables us to do what we need to do effectively (again, Slumbers talks a lot about ‘Space as a Service’).

I believe there’s something about an office space that allows you to build an identity, a brand, an experience that you simply can’t replicate online. I ventured into the office from time to time during COVID and each time I stepped foot in the office, it felt good. Working from home, all that exists between me and our team is a laptop, a Zoom call, a Slack conversation – in the office, it’s about our incredible culture.

The office of today is a place to create an experience so that people (employees, clients and customers) want to show up. And when they do show up it’s a rich experience where collaboration and communication outshines anything you can try and recreate online. A living breathing version of your brand, your culture, your beliefs, your values. There’s a lot of talk about businesses leasing less space (in terms of area) but making that space better – more human-centric.

EXPERIMENT AND BUILD THE NEW

Right now, it’s time to stop, to reset and build a more resilient, adaptable workplace. It’s a time for experimenting and testing what works, what doesn’t. Listening to our teams and being flexible to the needs of our people. It’s about being open, being willing, but mostly it’s about trust. And empowering our teams to do their best work.

So that when you do work out the best model for your business, and come together to see their faces IRL, the experiences will be rich, happy and positive ones… just like our first pizza and Prosecco lunch after three months apart.

Written by Magnum & Co’s Managing Partner, Katie Barclay.

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